June 1, 2004
Is FAIR Being Fair about NPR?
By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Web Extra May 26, 2004 -- FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has published a study that says NPR has gone over to the conservative side when it comes to who is interviewed and who are commentators.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 1, 2004
Dear Jeffrey Dvorkin,
I appreciate your thoughtful response to FAIR's study of NPR sources. I'm writing to clarify a few issues that arise from your response.
On the Brookings Institution question: While a case for Brookings liberalism could have been made three decades ago, for more than a decade Brookings leading voices have been drawn from both Republican and Democratic administrations. (See "Brookings: The Establishment's Think Tank ," Extra! 11-12/98 ) Michael O'Hanlon, NPR 's most-quoted Brookings source during the study period, was consistently hawkish about the Iraq War. (See O'Hanlon's column "A Time for War: Bush Must Not Flinch From Disarming Saddam"--Washington Times , 2/5/03.)
We did not actually conclude that NPR is skewing more to the right than it did when we studied it in 1993. We compared the tilt toward Republicans in 2003 (61 percent to 38 percent) with that found in 1993 (57 percent to 42 percent) to indicate that the tilt is not based on which party is in power--with control of the White House and both houses of Congress reversed, the imbalance remains.
Finally, you question in your response why we contrasted former NPR president Delano Lewis on the need for "alternative points of view" with current president Kevin Klose's call for NPR to "serve the entire democracy, the entire country." Actually, we didn't intend those statements to be in contrast; we cited them as evidence that NPR continues to set itself standards that it unfortunately falls short of.