May
01
2004

How Public Is Public Radio?

A study of NPR’s guest list

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 NPR’s guestlist that challenged the network’s alternative credentials (Extra!, 5/93), incoming NPR president Delano Lewis was still boasting about being a place where the unheard get heard (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 NPR’s 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 NPR’s 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.

FAIR’s 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 Weekend 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 NPR’s 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 (5-8/03) of think tank sources and commentators on the same four shows.

The elite majority

Elite sources dominated NPR’s guest-list. These sources—including government officials, professional experts and corporate representatives—accounted 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 experts—including 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 newsroom 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 sources—often in one-sentence soundbites. More than a third (37 percent) of general public sources were not even identified by name—appearing 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 groups—generally articulate sources espousing a particular point of view—accounted for 7 percent of total sources, the same proportion found in 1993. Though not a large proportion of NPR’s 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!, 5-6/02) 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 experts—just 15 percent of all professionals were women—or 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 sources—that is, they appeared as non-expert “people in the street”—as 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 Adviser 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 NPR’s 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 Gingrich’s 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 NBC’s 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 FAIR’s latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources—including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants—Republicans 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 NPR’s 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: NPR’s think tank sources

FAIR’s four-month study of NPR in 1993 found 10 think tanks that were cited twice or more. In a new four-month study (5/03-8/03), 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 O’Hanlon of Brookings (7) and E.J. Dionne, also of Brookings (6).

—S.R. and D.B.

SIDEBAR:

Who Does the Considering? NPR’s commentators are slightly more diverse—and largely apolitical

FAIR’s 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 (5/03-8/03). 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 NPR’s 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 commentators—next 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 NPR’s commentator base, 60 percent of its commentators are still white men. That’s 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 children’s 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, NPR’s left-of-center commentators were not progressive movement firebrands. Two commentators consistently took liberal political positions—columnists Lenore Skenazy of the New York Daily News and Joe Davidson of BET.com—but neither one is an activist pundit comparable to Williams, York or Loconte. (The Daily News describes Skenazy’s 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 don’t 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 Angeles-based 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 Clinton’s 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 Bush’s 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 Freeman’s four commentaries, only one focused on politics, a humorous piece about “dating” presidential hopefuls. Only one of Wynter’s commentaries was mildly political—commenting on affirmative action in kindergarten admissions.

—S.R. and D.B.

(See related Press Release: NPR Responds to FAIR's NPR Study.)