Skip to comments.How Public is Public Radio?
Posted on 05/29/2004 7:59:46 AM PDT by raybbr
When National Public Radio was launched in 1971, it promised to be an alternative to commercial media that would promote personal growth rather than corporate gain and speak with many voices, many dialects.
In 1993, when FAIR published a study of NPRs guestlist that challenged the networks alternative credentials (Extra!, 5/93), incoming NPR president Delano Lewis was still boasting about being a place where the unheard get heard (The Humanist, 9/93): Our job is to be a public radio station. So therefore the alternative points of view, the various viewpoints, should be aired.
Today, current NPR president Kevin Klose insists that diversity and inclusivity are among NPRs top priorities (Syracuse Post-Standard, 7/31/02): All of us believe our goal is to serve the entire democracy, the entire country.
NPR, which now reaches 22 million listeners weekly on 750 affiliated stations, does frequently provide more than the nine-second-soundbite culture of mainstream news broadcasts. But is the public really heard on public radio? And is NPR truly an alternative to its commercial competition? A new FAIR study of NPRs guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.
FAIRs study recorded every on-air source quoted in June 2003 on four National Public Radio news shows: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Week-end Edition Sunday. Each source was classified by occupation, gender, nationality and partisan affiliation. Altogether, the study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804 stories.
In addition to studying NPRs general news sources, FAIR looked at the think tanks NPR relies on most frequently, and at its list of regular commentators. To ensure a substantial sample of these subsets, we looked at four months (58/03) of think tank sources and commentators on the same four shows. The elite majority
Elite sources dominated NPRs guest-list. These sourcesincluding government officials, professional experts and corporate representativesaccounted for 64 percent of all sources.
Current and former government officials constituted the largest group of elite voices, accounting for 28 percent of overall sources, an increase of 2 percentage points over 1993. Current and former military sources (a subset of governmental sources) were 3 percent of total sources.
Professional expertsincluding those from academia, journalism, think tanks, legal, medical and other professions were the second largest elite group, accounting for 26 percent of all sources. Corporate representatives accounted for 6 percent of total sources.
Journalists by themselves accounted for 7 percent of all NPR sources. For a public radio service intended to provide an independent alternative to corporate-owned and commercially driven mainstream media, NPR is surprisingly reliant on mainstream journalists. At least 83 percent of journalists appearing on NPR in June 2003 were employed by commercial U.S. media outlets, many at outlets famous for influencing news- room agendas throughout the country (16 from the New York Times alone, and another seven from the Washington Post). Only five sources came from independent news outlets like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the National Catholic Reporter.
The remainder of elite sources was distributed among religious leaders (2 percent) and political professionals, including campaign staff and consultants (1 percent). The public on public radio
Though elite sources made up a majority of sources, the study actually found a substantial increase in the number of non-elite sources featured. Workers, students, the general public, and representatives of organized citizen and public interest groups accounted for 31 percent of all sources, compared to the 17 percent found in 1993.
The increase comes largely in the general public category. These are people in the street whose occupations are not identified and who tend to be quoted more briefly than other sourcesoften in one-sentence soundbites. More than a third (37 percent) of general public sources were not even identified by nameappearing in show transcripts as unidentified woman No. 2 and the like. General public sources accounted for 21 percent of NPR sources.
Spokespeople for public interest groupsgenerally articulate sources espousing a particular point of viewaccounted for 7 percent of total sources, the same proportion found in 1993. Though not a large proportion of NPRs sources, public interest voices were still about twice as common on NPR as on commercial network news, according to a FAIR study published in 2002 (Extra!, 56/02) that found that such sources made up only 3 percent of voices on network news shows.
Public interest voices on NPR reflected a wide range of opinion, from conservative groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Texas Eagle Forum to progressive groups like MoveOn.org and Code Pink. Types of organizations represented included political organizations, charitable foundations, public education groups and human rights and civil liberties advocates. Eighty-seven percent of public interest sources appeared in domestic policy stories.
Sources identified as workers on NPR programming in June accounted for 2.3 percent of overall sources and 1.8 percent of U.S. sources. But spokespersons for organized labor were almost invisible, numbering just six sources, or 0.3 percent of the total. Corporate representatives (6 percent) appeared 23 times more often than labor representatives. Women: one in five
Women were dramatically underrepresented on NPR in 1993 (19 percent of all sources), and they remain so today (21 percent). And they were even less likely to appear on NPR in stories as expertsjust 15 percent of all professionals were womenor in stories discussing political issues, where only 18 percent of sources were women.
Women were particularly scarce in stories about Iraq, making up just 13 percent of sources. Nearly half of these women, 47 percent, were general public sourcesthat is, they appeared as non-expert people in the streetas compared to 22 percent of male sources in Iraq stories. Thirty-three percent of female sources commenting in Iraq stories appeared as professionals or experts, while 66 percent of male Iraq sources appeared in such capacities.
Female sources lagged markedly behind men in most occupation categories. Women accounted for 17 percent of journalistic sources, 12 percent of corporate sources and 12 percent of government officials. The only category where females appeared more often than males was among the small sample of students (12 of 23); women and men were equally cited as families of military personnel.
Six women tied for most often quoted, with three appearances each. Of these, four were from government: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative Manhattan Institute and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman rounded out the list of women who appeared most frequently on NPR.
It was not feasible to do an ethnic breakdown of more than 2,000 radio sources, but an examination of NPRs commentators (see sidebar) suggests that the network may have made more progress in racial inclusion than in gender balance since 1993. Liberal bias?
That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early 70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that all funds for public broadcasting be cut (9/23/71), through House Speaker Newt Gingrichs similar threats in the mid-90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures.
News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. I have three letters for you, NPR. . . . I mean, there is liberal radio, remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBCs Chris Matthews Show (4/4/04.) A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, The liberals have many outlets, naming NPR prominently among them.
Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?
Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIRs latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sourcesincluding government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultantsRepublicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.
Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning Edition, 6/26/03).
Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPRs most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.
Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials. SIDEBAR: The Right Stuff: NPRs think tank sources
FAIRs four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/038/03), the list of think tanks cited two or more times has grown to 17, accounting for 133 appearances.
FAIR classified each think tank by ideological orientation as either centrist, right of center or left of center. Representatives of think tanks to the right of center outnumbered those to the left of center by more than four to one: 62 appearances to 15. Centrist think tanks provided sources for 56 appearances.
The most often quoted think tank was the centrist Brookings Institution, quoted 31 times; it was also the most quoted think tank in 1993. It was followed by 19 appearances by the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies and 17 by the centrist Council on Foreign Relations. The most frequently cited left-of-center organization was the Urban Institute, with eight appearances.
Diversity among think tank representatives was even more lopsided than the ideological spread, with women cited only 10 percent of the time, and people of color only 3 percent. Only white men were quoted more than twice, the most frequent being Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (8 appearances), Michael OHanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).
S.R. and D.B. SIDEBAR: Who Does the Considering? NPRs commentators are slightly more diverseand largely apolitical
FAIRs 1993 study found great imbalances with regard to the sex and ethnicity/race of NPR commentators, who play a role similar to that of columnists in print media. A new look shows some improvement in diversity in this area.
Because of the relatively small number of commentators, FAIR expanded the study period to look at NPR commentators over a period of four months (5/038/03). In the study period, 130 commentators appeared at least once; 46 were featured two or more times and were thus considered regular commentators.
Eleven of NPRs regular commentators were women (24 percent), a distinct minority but up substantially since the 1993 study, when women accounted for just 15 percent of regular commentators.
Six regular commentators were African-American (13 percent), two were Asian (4 percent) and one was Latino (2 percent). The remaining 80 percent (37 of 46) of commentators were non-Latino whites. All but one of 27 regular commentators in the 1993 study were white (96 percent); the one exception, cartoonist Lynda Barry, is of European and Filipino descent.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, non-Latino whites make up 69 percent of the population. African-Americans account for 12 percent of the population, and Asians 4 percent. Emerging as the largest U.S. minority (13 percent of the U.S. population), Latinos were the most underrepresented group among NPR commentatorsnext to Native Americans, who were not represented among regular commentators on NPR, and constituted 1 percent of the population in the 2000 census.
Despite some progress in broadening NPRs commentator base, 60 percent of its commentators are still white men. Thats down 25 percentage points from 1993, but demonstrates that NPR, like most media outlets, still favors this overrepresented group.
The top five commentators by frequency of appearance were all white men. Sports commentator Frank Deford led the field with 16 appearances, followed by John Feinstein (13), Andrei Codrescu (11), Ron Rapoport (6) and Daniel Pinkwater (5). Of these five men, who together make up 35 percent of all commentaries by regular contributors, three commented exclusively on sports. The other two, Codrescu and Pinkwater, primarily discussed art and childrens literature, respectively.
By subject, human-interest commentary was most prevalent, making up 32 percent of contributions by regular commentators. Sports made up another 25 percent; domestic politics, 18 percent; and arts, 9 percent. Commentaries on international politics accounted for 4 percent of the total. Uncommon politics
With political commentary taking a backseat to human interest and sports segments, there were relatively few political commentators on the list. Just eight of 46 commentators dealt primarily with political issues. Three of these were conservative movement stalwarts: columnist Armstrong Williams, National Review journalist Byron York, and Heritage Foundation fellow Joseph Loconte.
By contrast, NPRs left-of-center commentators were not progressive movement firebrands. Two commentators consistently took liberal political positionscolumnists Lenore Skenazy of the New York Daily News and Joe Davidson of BET.combut neither one is an activist pundit comparable to Williams, York or Loconte. (The Daily News describes Skenazys column as a usually light-hearted look at politics and family.) The Heritage Foundation and National Review are important institutions on the right; people affiliated with their counterparts on the left dont show up on the list of regular NPR commentators.
Others who give regular political commentary on NPR are less easy to categorize as either left or right. Columnist Matt Miller occasionally takes left-of-center stands, but he fills the center chair on the Los Angelesbased public radio show Left, Right and Center and describes his ideology as radical centrism. Former Nixon aide turned economic populist Kevin Phillips is also hard to pin down. While a sharp critic of the Bush family, he also supported President Bill Clintons impeachment and calls himself an independent.
Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette generally takes centrist to center-right positions. For instance, while he supports immigration and (more or less) affirmative action, he has also praised George Bushs leadership (Denver Post, 9/26/01) and resoluteness (Dallas Morning News, 1/23/04), supported privatization of Social Security (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 1/30/03) and assailed liberal racism (Dallas Morning News, 1/24/03).
Two other NPR commentators, African-Americans Aaron Freeman and Leon Wynter, addressed issues of race and ethnicity primarily in social, not political, terms. Of Freemans four commentaries, only one focused on politics, a humorous piece about dating presidential hopefuls. Only one of Wynters commentaries was mildly politicalcommenting on affirmative action in kindergarten admissions.
S.R. and D.B.
I'd like to see an analysis from the MRC and Mr. Bozell. I doubt they would come to the same conclusion. I think the writers from the ONION must be working for FAIR on the side.
Is FAIR Being Fair about NPR?
FAIR is a media watchdog group that describes itself as "progressive" -- i.e., on the left.
The study (see Web Resources below) assessed NPR interviews in its newsmagazine programs for June 2003. The study also looked at which experts were invited to speak on NPR over a four-month period from May to August of that year.
Skewing to the Right
FAIR says that NPR is definitely skewing right compared to a similar study it conducted 10 years before. FAIR says that NPR regularly has "elite" (FAIR's term) experts and opinion makers to comment on events. This group of current and former government officials accounts for 28 percent of the interviews and commentaries. Twenty six percent were "professional experts" (academics, think tank experts, lawyers, doctors and scientists). Seven percent were journalists but overwhelmingly (83 percent) these journalists were from mainstream commercial outlets.
FAIR says that NPR has improved in a couple of respects compared to 10 years ago: NPR is doing better according to FAIR at getting ordinary citizens on the radio (up from 17 percent to 31 percent). And says FAIR, NPR has increased the number of commentators of color -- up to 40 percent. Ten years ago, more than 85 percent of NPR commentators were white and predominantly male.
Although there are more women on the air, they are still a minority of voices interviewed on NPR. Of all interviewees, 21 percent are female, compared to 19 percent 10 years ago.
'FAIR' is Fair -- But
The FAIR study seems about right to me with a couple of exceptions.
In a similar study I commissioned, we looked at NPR interviews over a two-month period from Nov. 24, 2003 through Jan. 23, 2004. It is not entirely fair (as it were) to compare the studies since they were done at different times.
But I think the methodologies were similar in that both looked at the names of the interviewees and tried to determine where they fall on the ideological spectrum. But there are differences between the two studies as well.
For me, I would take issue with FAIR's assumptions and definitions about what constitutes a conservative opinion.
What's Right for You?
First, the definitions:
FAIR refers to The Brookings Institution as a "centrist" think tank. This is, in my opinion, a trickily subjective adjective. Many would consider Brookings to be a solidly liberal organization whose scholars and pundits are frequently heard on NPR.
FAIR might also question, as some listeners have, whether All Things Considered's weekly left-right encounter between E.J. Dionne and David Brooks is really pitting a "true" liberal against a conservative.
But conservative organizations tend in my experience to be unabashedly open about their ideology. Liberals and liberal organizations are less so, possibly because they are so often put on the defensive by a more aggressive and militant conservatism.
As examples -- Brookings avoids describing itself as either left or right. It prefers to point to its "reform" roots going back to the early 20th century (see Web Resources below)
The Heritage Foundation (see Web Resources) on the other hand is open about its conservative roots and ideology.
Other think tanks whose experts are interviewed on NPR do not lend themselves to easy categorization. The Council on Foreign Relations has both conservatives and liberals. So does the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
My study showed that NPR interviewed 33 think-tank experts and only four came from explicitly conservative think tanks. Three came from think tanks that have a liberal reputation -- although they don't describe themselves as such. Most of the experts and other interviewees in this study don't easily lend themselves to a handy political label or shorthand.
Fewer Pundits and More Academics
Second, the FAIR study looks only at the experts. My study also looked at who else was being interviewed. It found that NPR has interviewed far more academics than think-tank pundits. While the Academy is hardly immune from ideology, it does, in my opinion, show that NPR is not relying completely on the usual Washington, D.C. suspects. Many critics on the right often point to Daniel Schorr as NPR's "liberal commentator in residence." Dan would dispute that description and FAIR never mentions him at all.
Third, the timing of the FAIR report does not take into account what else was going on in the news. June 2003 was one month after the White House proclaimed the end of major hostilities in Iraq. There was a certain mood of triumphalism in the Bush administration and the presence of high-profile Republicans dominated the news. That may not have been a time when a lot of opposition opinions from the Democratic caucus were being voiced. It may point out the need for NPR to seek out those opinions even when the Democrats are keeping a low media profile.
It is important that the NPR audience hears from conservative thinkers and politicians. As NPR editor Ken Rudin once explained to me, the arrival of a Republican majority in Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years was a shock for most of the Washington press corps -- NPR included. Republicans had not been a factor for so long, journalists didn't know whom to approach inside the Republican caucus. Presumably neither did their listeners, viewers and readers.
Is NPR now ignoring the Democrats in a way it once may have ignored the Republicans?
I have criticized NPR in the past for its narrow reliance on a few bright men (and they are overwhelmingly male). I think that NPR is putting more conservatives on the radio than it used to. This is a good thing provided the balance is maintained.
Intellectual Comfort Food?
Listeners are quick to dash to their e-mails when they hear an opinion that is not their own. NPR's role, it seems to me is not to provide listeners with intellectual comfort food.
FAIR is concerned whether the pendulum has swung too far. That's my concern as well.
I think it may have and NPR needs to do a better job in general and especially in an election year -- to make sure that the range is both wide and deep.
At the same time, FAIR's study seems to reinforce the notion that what constitutes the center in American journalism is rapidly becoming an endangered species. For the left, NPR is never quite left enough. For the right of course, NPR remains a paragon of liberal bias.
NPR sees itself as a bastion of fair-minded journalism. But fewer media critics are able to agree with that.
An Alternative Radio or a Mainstream News Organization?
The FAIR report quotes, compares and contrasts two NPR presidents. In 1993 Delano Lewis said, "Our job is to be a public radio station. So therefore the alternative points of view, the various viewpoints, should be aired." In 2002 Kevin Klose said, "All of us believe our goal is to serve the entire democracy, the entire country."
Why does FAIR perceive these two laudatory goals as being mutually exclusive?
Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at email@example.com.
NPR/PBS ping list
If you want on or off this *NPR/PBS* ping list, please FReepmail me or just bump the thread
AND indicate your desire to be included. You must opt in! Don't be shy!
This is a low to moderate activty list.
Centrist Brookins Institution.
Well, as long as they're mostly quoting centrists, I guess they're balanced enough to keep their public funding. ;^)
"Good times, good times...
Our next guest is from Vermont, Mr. Chuck Schweddy..."
" The top five commentators by frequency of appearance were all white men. "
Notice here that diversity of opinion is not an issue here and that the color of the skin is the issue.
Two Saturdays ago I listened to NPR (National Proletariat Radio) and it was a Bush Bashing free for all.
I remember when Clinton was in office it was, "President Clinton today did...." Now they say "Bush" and never "President Bush" -- the should just rename the channel to, National Bush Hate Radio.
Air America has its morning show called Morning Sedition so they understand that NPR is truly traitorious.
It's like the New York Times---the only time they ever admit to a bias is to say that they discovered they actually have a *conservative* bias and need to work harder getting out liberal views.
Left wingers employed by Fox:
Greta Van Sustern (husband works for Kerry 2004 campaign)
Conservatives employed by PBS:
Conservatives employed by NPR:
Your data - shorter, sweeter, seemingly less technical, proves the point perfectly.
FAIR obviously had an agenda to push and made their case.
Anyone who thinks NPR is at all centrist or unbiased has never listed to them or lacks the ability to think.
Fair brings hiome the truth the statement "Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics".
We should challenge FAIR to a simpler test: How many tiems were factually untrue statements aired by NPR? For instance, anything out of Michael Moore or Ted Kennedy's mouth - It is not just the number of quotes - but of course they know that.
I agree, but just keep Austin City Limits and those cool oldies concerts that they have every once in a while...
Mr. Dvorkin suggests that perhaps liberals are defensive and avoid the term. No, IMO it's because they consider themselves centrists. For decades mainstream "news" articles routinely labeled opposing opinion "controversial," "divisive," "extreme," "ultra-conservative," and far too often "racist," "fascist," and "anti-democratic."
An amusing and silly liberal tactic being used more and more today is to defend their extreme language and lies by saying their language was "nuanced."
The Err America employee who suggested that the President and other administration officials be executed is raving that critics didn't understand what he really meant. A Sacramento Bee ombudsman responded to my complaints about a cartoon character's advocacy of physical violence against Ward Connerly by saying it was only satire and that I was too stupid to understand. Of course his newspaper rants and raves about violence against the poor by electing conservative Republicans to office. More nuance, I suppose.
NPR sees itself as a bastion of fair-minded journalism. But fewer media critics are able to agree with that.
I think SierraWasp's tagline has it and other mainstream stuff better defined as "preemptive journalism." A good example is the way they use (and ignore) polls to feature (and spike) news.
Husband, Just for the heck of it I sent my list (others helped fill it out) to NPR's ombudsman.
Lets see what happens.
i don't like their nasal superiority.
npr reminds me of a trader joe's ad.
It is the useual left-wing use of language that annoys me. They have simply described "commericals" as being those "advertisements for some one else" and mask their endless self-promoting/funding raisng messages as not being commercial. Add to that, the many, many (but short) "brought to you by" messages that join almost every pair of programs and, in the aggregate, NPR is commercial radio.
In fact, NPR's misuse of the word "commercial" is like the fairies theft of the word "gay" and of the concept of "marriage." We must learn to recognize this evil and to mold the language to fit our objectives as well as those who conspire to detroy the America we know and they hate.
I had a 10 email exchange with him regarding their on air talent. I challenged him to name the full time, on air, talent that provided the balance to Daniel Schorr, Bob Edwards, Tavis Smiley, Terri Gross etc.
He punted. Claimed they were all professionals and NPR didn't listen to see if they had an ideological slant. In the next sentence he repeated the mantra that NPR was balanced.
Fox has 10 times as many liberals as any other network has conservatives. Yet, they still label Fox as being way to the right. And that is just proof that they don't even know where the center begins and where leftism ends.
You got your Jim Hightower trying to make a mountain out of a rare molehill, you have people telling us that AIDS in Africa is
the fault of white, western males for not wanting our @sses taxed off, and gee, its too bad no My Lais could be found
committed by US troops in Afghanistan, etc.
Like most leftists, they FAIR is a misnomer designed to corrupt the language and facts.
And to the left, NPR is hostage to corporate underwriters. Two or three years ago, a column appeared in the SF
Chronicle about the "lack of leftness" in NPR, because of the greed, er, need for funding.
With Joan Kroc's gift, NPR should be spun off the taxpayer teat. And be held accountable as a real licensee of public spectrum.
Thanks for your work exposing "leftists at work" at NPR. If you decide to write a book about NPR/its supporters, you could call it "Muffy and Biff Hate America."