On Media: The Counter-narrative on Bias at NPR

NPR’s (now former) Washington, DC headquarters. Are we measuring the bias of its reporting from the wrong side?

In which I discuss the criticism of NPR from a part of the political spectrum you may not expect.

If you ask the typical American right winger why public broadcasting should be robbed of the pittance it receives from the federal government, they will typically give you a two pronged critique. One, that public broadcasting is not the role of the government and should be left to the marketplace. The second would probably be a content based critique.

The Right’s narrative on NPR

While the right wing has come to treat as an article of faith that all of the media—except for the oasis of balanced fairness that is Fox News—has a “liberal bias,” NPR has become one of the central targets for criticism. Recent controversies over comments an NPR development official (fundraiser) made in one of James O’ Keefe’s hidden camera stings and the firing of Juan Williams, the ideologically ambiguous black commentator at the station, intensified right wing ire at the organization.

The Conventional Wisdom

Indeed, the idea that NPR has, if not an actual left-wing bent in its journalism, than the overpowering ethos and sensibility of left leaning upper middle class white elitists, is basically conventional wisdom, even among less ideological media observers—noted New York Times media reporter David Carr said of the network, “In terms of assignments and sensibility, NPR has always been more blue than red, but it’s not as if it has an overt political agenda…”

The Left’s Criticisms

Leaving aside the fact that even this conventional wisdom is less true than one would believe, what all of this talk obscures is the rather strident and growing criticism of NPR from the left. Some of this criticism is to the effect that NPR has simply become more of an establishment outlet, as it progressed from its genesis as a loose association of campus and community stations to the sort of nonprofit that gets philanthropic gifts from foundations of the wealthy and powerful. Others criticize NPR’s reporting as giving too much airtime and credence to “pro-corporate” right wing economics and not including true progressives in the debate. The third, and in a sense, most ironic argument, is that similar to the coverage of the New York Times (another target of right wing ire that is actually deeply disliked by the movement left), the sensibility of NPR is really skewed towards the interests of the supposed “1%”—one percent radio was how one critic described it.

Too Establishment?

First to the criticism that NPR is too establishment. A piece by the left wing media pressure group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) a decade ago discussed NPR’s then groundbreaking success in public broadcasting, and while the writers did consider the broadcaster much better than commercial radio, which was “slid[ing] deeper into an abyss of mediocrity and corrosive gunk,” they also expressed concern about many aspects of the organization. They noted, for example, that several the executives in charge of NPR at the time of the piece (2002) were previously involved with overseeing the US’s international broadcast operations, which are explicitly considered to be tools of foreign policy influence.

Two other aspects the FAIR piece criticized were the lack of “diversity of perspectives” on the network in both the realms of domestic and foreign reporting (this aspect was elaborated on in a different study by the group), and the reliance of the present day public broadcasting model on corporate underwriting packages.

Too Establishment: Stenography in the realm of national security?

The subject of national security reporting is perhaps where the movement left has focused their sharpest critiques of NPR. Critics allege that the network’s reporting, much like that of other mainstream media outlets, hews too close to Pentagon-approved takes on war and presents a narrow, military-strategy focused range of debate (I wrote about this previously). Another piece by FAIR went as fair to deride NPR as National Pentagon Radio for airing a cordial interview with one of those ubiquitous retired generals on war strategy.

NPR Counter-terrorism reporter Dina Temple-Raston has been the subject of criticism from the left over a recent report on Iran.

Earlier this year, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald (now with The Guardian) wrote a scathing commentary on a story by NPR’s national security correspondent on the supposed growing threat from Iran. Greenwald contended in his critique that the piece exemplified all that was wrong with establishment Washington reporting—reliance on government sources, uncritical relaying of State Department views, and a lack of real questioning of American government motives in the realm of external policy.

Incidentally, the same NPR reporter, Dina Temple-Raston, attacked Greenwald back in 2010 over his criticism of the US government’s assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an exchange that was picked up by bloggers from both the liberal American Prospect and the libertarian Reason Magazine, she told Greenwald that his criticism was invalid because she learned classified information from government sources of Awlaki’s guilt in orchestrating terrorism. The rather unusual exchange, which occurred at an NYU symposium on the First Amendment and the Constitution, is in the video below beginning at 53:00.

NPR’s ombudsman (to their credit, NPR is one of the few major news organizations that still has one) has fielded some of these complaints about the broadcaster’s national security coverage. Back in January, Robert Naiman, the head of another left leaning watchdog group, flagged a report on Iran’s alleged nuclear program because the reporter, Tom Gjelten, used phraseology implicating Iran as having a fully fledged nuclear program, something which is far from a known fact. The ombudsman responded by acknowledging the validity of concerns about NPR’s national security coverage, but contending that the very premise of the report treated the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as a hypothetical future event, rather than a present day certainty as Naiman’s criticism implied. After listening to the report, it is clear the NPR ombudsman’s narrow point of rebuttal is valid, but a quick look at the comments shows that most commenters saw the almost-semantical defense as missing the point.

Before I move on, I should note that NPR, to its credit, did prepare their own analysis of the network’s Mideast reporting for the early portion of this year, which addressed their Iran coverage. However the report did fail to address Temple-Raston’s March report on Iran that triggered Greenwald’s criticism.

NPR: Too sympathetic to the right wing in domestic coverage?

Domestic reporting  is where the other portion of left wing criticism of NPR is directed, and while some of this has come from the expected quarters on the left—FAIR’s commentary on NPR’s reliance on typical beltway sources implicitly argued this, some of this criticism has also come from media journalists from non-ideological outlets—last year, the Columbia Journalism Review’s healthcare and campaign journalism critic Trudy Lieberman criticized an NPR report on the future of Social Security.

Lieberman focused on the fact that the report by congressional correspondent Dave Welna was premised on the Republican argument that Social Security is insolvent and in imminent need of radical restructuring. The report, in Lieberman’s view, treated this trope not as a political argument of questionable validity, but as a confirmed fact, and heavily relied on sourcing from Republican politicians on the program. The same CJR writer flagged two other NPR pieces on Social Security for similarly doubtful premises (one and two).

Logo of the American Public Media program “Marketplace”, which contrary to popular belief, is not an NPR program.

Other economic reporting on public radio has come for scorn from the left. The popular business program Marketplace, which, while heard on most stations during broadcasts of NPR’s All Things Considered, is actually produced by the wholly separate organization American Public Media, sparked some controversy last summer when one of its reporters lashed out at a viewer annoyed with the program’s coverage of the debt ceiling. The original segment concerned the markets’ reaction to the debt ceiling deal. The reporter, Heidi Moore, told the host of Marketplace:

“One of the things that people on Wall Street are really concerned about is entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Those are obviously huge flashpoints for people, but investors want to see the costs for those come down before they really have confidence in us.”

The viewer, a New Hampshire 63 year old, was rather offended by this framing, and wrote back:

Elizabeth Fisher: I was really angry because she [the reporter] made it sound like investors are just waiting to see whether we’ll actually make the cuts to entitlements. And I’m 63, and I’m sitting here hoping there’s going to be enough left of the entitlements so that I can survive the rest of my life.”

The reporter, Heidi Moore, responded to this letter in a post on her Tumblr blog, arguing that austerity was necessary to restore the US’s credit ratings, and that criticizing the media for reporting what Wall Street is thinking was not productive. The Columbia Journalism Review’s business press critic, Ryan Chittum, criticized the reporter’s point about Wall Street reporting, but also argued that her very premise on austerity was untrue and based upon short term numbers.  A quick look at the Tumblr responses again shows that CJR writer was not the only one to find her sentiment disagreeable. Here is a particularly biting response.

The debate on the left about NPR continues

While agreeing with many of its critics on the left, public broadcasting fixture and noted progressive Bill Moyers argues it is still a viable alternative to commercial media.

Every time one of those “defund public broadcasting” debates is instigated by Congressional Republicans, there is a smaller debate inside the left about whether public broadcasting is worth saving at all. FAIR says not in its current form, while some have given up on the organization altogether—one former listener has been writing a blog, NPR Check, critiquing what he perceives as a right wing slant at NPR for several years now—but others see it differently. Public broadcasting luminary and strident progressive Bill Moyers co-authored a piece for Salon last year which advocated for a defense of NPR. Though Moyers agreed with the premise that other alternative media programs, like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! do a better job of Speaking Truth To Power than NPR and PBS, he writes:

“better a diamond with a flaw — a big flaw — than a pebble without. For all that it [public broadcasting] provides — but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting — we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear.”

Conclusions

My own thoughts on this left wing critique of NPR are somewhat muddled. I will say here that I personally am an avid listener of NPR and have done some outreach work for my own public radio station (where I have heard some listeners voice similar concerns about a rightward drift at the national organization). In terms of national security reporting, it is clear that the pieces mentioned earlier were very problematic for their uncritical transcription of Pentagon and intelligence community claims, and indeed are symptomatic of larger problems with the US media’s treatment of American foreign policy.

On economic and political reporting, while the organization has produced some dubious reports (as even the best of the media do), the bulk of NPR’s economic coverage has a depth and evenhandedness that truly separates it from the fare of other media outlets. The movement left is correct in arguing that NPR isn’t Democracy Now!, but I would argue that this is neither an indictment or a compliment because NPR is not intended to be “alternative” media in the same way the Amy Goodman program is. DN approaches the world from an avowedly progressive perspective, which is not the role of a public broadcaster.

2 comments
  1. Joseph said:

    NPR shouldn’t be punished for the fact that reality has a liberal bias

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