The Bias of the Network
by Roger Rick
For Brook Gladstone, host of NPR's On The Media, the question of whether the network is biased is no question at all. According to her, the people of NPR remained steadfastly in the center, while the public at large drifted slowly to the right, beginning with the Nixon years.
It's the public that is biased, stupid!
OTM host Brook Gladstone [©NPR]
Indeed, it may be the case that we all kept drifting while Gladstone and her colleagues at NPR stayed true to the old religion. But, regardless who has changed, this still places the network somewhere out in the left field, viewed from where the rest of us are standing.
The liberal bias of the media is not surprising, considering that in a survey, jointly conducted by the Freedom Forum and the Roper Center, 89% of Washington's bureau chiefs and congressional correspondents voted for Clinton in the '96 presidential election. I am not aware of a poll of the people at NPR, but I would be surprised if their score was anything but a perfect 100%.
The fact that most people at NPR News are describing themselves as liberal or progressive, does not necessarily preclude the fair and balanced reporting of the news. Nor is it self-evident that public radio has to be neutral in the vast marketplace of political opinions.
Isn't that what the First Amendment is all about?
Let me tackle the second point first, because the question of bias becomes irrelevant if you think that there is no obligation for a network that is using public funds to be fair and impartial in its news reporting.
NPR accepts tax dollars and, thus, has a fiduciary responsibility to all of us who support its operations involuntarily. In general, the federal government expects grant recipients not to discriminate. A college that accepts money to build a new library cannot limit the use of the library to children of alumni. In fact, as soon as the institution receives federal funds, it has to conform to a host of federal rules and regulations, e.g., equal opportunity employment, title IX, etc.
Breakdown of NPR revenues in FY 2000
NPR plays a bit of a shell game in an attempt to hide its public funding sources. In its FY 2000 financial statement, the network claims that "[it] receives no direct general operating support from any national or local government source." The emphasis here is on the words "direct" and "general." Most of the funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) goes directly to member stations which, in turn, use the money to pay programming fees to NPR (and PRI) — thus, the support is not direct. Grants awarded to NPR directly are usually ear-marked, such as the $30.3 million it received in FY 2000 for satellite replacement, and, thus, do not fit the bill of "general" support.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is not the only venue by which the taxpayer supports public radio. NPR and member stations receive funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and from states and local governments. Often, the member stations are supported by colleges and universities which, in turn, are recipients of federal and state funds.
Defenders of NPR point out that the largest revenue stream is contributions from private foundations and corporations. While this may be the case, it is hardly justification for violating the moral, if not legal, prohibition against spending tax money for partisan causes. Nor is it self-evident that private contributors want their money to be spent this way. In fact, most grants are targeted for specific purposes, such as a grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for coverage of international news, a grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for reporting of health care issues, or the support of jazz programming from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
This is not to say that all contributors find fault with NPR's progressive agenda. As a matter of fact, some foundations appear to have been high-jacked by the same crowd that is running National Public Radio. In an essay entitled "Systems of Justice and Freedom," Bradford K. Smith, Vice President of the Ford Foundation, describes the justice system of the United States in the following way:
African-Americans and Latinos not embraced as full citizens? You can find silly statements like this — or even worse — on web sites of many charitable foundations. One wonders whether Henry Ford would have liked his estate to be spent this way.
The belief system of NPR is progressive, following the ideals of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité! Certain that the enlightened elite know best what is good for you, progressives find nothing wrong with taking away personal freedoms or private property, as long as it advances the goal of greater societal justice. Nostalgic for the unfulfilled promises of socialism, progressives find it difficult to embrace capitalism. They are deeply troubled by the differences in power and wealth that free markets are creating and feel guilty for being citizens of the richest and most powerful nation in the world.
Clinton, despite his many shortcomings, is admired and loved by the Left because he tried to advance a liberal agenda. He forced the military to accept gays, raised taxes for the rich and corporations, and used troops for "good" purposes, such as an attempt of nation-building in Somalia or the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti. Bush, on the other hand, is nemesis to all their aspirations: he does not hesitate to deploy military power for the security interests of the United States. He cut taxes and tried to abolish the double-taxation of dividends and estates, the very taxes that are most dear to progressives.
There are numerous examples of the left-wing bias of the network. Just listen to NPR's Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr, denouncing the Supreme Court decision to stop the Florida recount as "judicial coup." Or tune in to the Tavis Smiley show just days before the 2002 midterm election in which Clinton — in a prerecorded message — exhorted the party faithful to come out to vote. The bias is so pervasive that it doesn't even stop with the news. On Prairie Home Companion's annual joke show (broadcast on the day that the Columbia shuttle disintegrated over Texas), Garrison Keillor remarked that the Bush presidency necessitated all the moron jokes to be rewritten.
The progressive agenda is evident from the choice of topics (the flavor of the day is gay and lesbian lifestyle, but this may change at any minute) and the kind of people interviewed for a story. Often, the "experts" hail from the same activist groups who are pressing the issue. The choice of commentators is likewise revealing. One famous example is the hiring of Mumia Abu-Jamal, cop killer and death row inmate, as analyst for All Things Considered. Books picked for sympathetic book reviews are almost exclusively penned by writers from the left fringe of their profession; attacking Israel or slandering Bush is a sure ticket to get on Fresh Air.
Hits for "Heritage Foundation" and "Brookings Institution" searching Google News and NPR's web site [4/10/03]
The bias against conservatives and Republicans is the most visible, though not necessarily the most fervently held one (the pro-Palestinian bias comes to mind here). Democratic politicians and former members of the Carter and Clinton administrations are frequent guests on the shows. Conservatives on NPR are as rare as a snow flake in the midst of summer. Since the bias against Republicans is so ubiquitous, it can be easily shown:
The issues that keep Washington politicians and pundits occupied are often initiated by interest groups and so-called "think tanks." It seems that for every liberal group there is a conservative counterpart. The most influential Democratic think tank is the Brookings Institution, while the premiere think tank on the Republican side is the Heritage Foundation. When you search Google News for the two names, you find an about equal number of citations for both, with a slight advantage for the Heritage Foundation (53%). Searching for the think tanks on NPR's web site, the Heritage Foundations seems to be almost non-existent (19%). Obviously, the folks at NPR don't like to talk to fellows with conservative ideas.
I picked the comparison with Google News because, at the time, the service was brand-new and one would have a hard time to argue that the folks at Google are politically biased: after all, they're computer nerds. Nevertheless, search engines do not necessarily produce unbiased results. If the majority of journalists take their cues from conservative sources, then that would be reflected in the search results. In other words, the comparison only shows that NPR is left of the mainstream media.
Of course, the number of citations does not adequately capture the leftist bias of NPR. When conservatives occasionally do appear on NPR, the hosts often can barely hide their contempt for the ideas and causes that they stand for. It is not that they hate conservatives — they just have a hard time grasping that others may have a different view of the world. They remind me of The New Yorker's film critic Pauline Kael who after Richard Nixon's landslide victory in 1972 famously observed: "I can't believe it. I don't know a single person who voted for him."
I received several letters from people who argued that NPR is a right wing news organization as shown by a recent FAIR study. Of course, people who take FAIR seriously probably believe that Michael Moore is a documentary film maker rather than the clever agit-prop artist that he truly is.
It is worthwhile to note that FAIR used a method similar to the one that I was employing, only that it redefines what is left and right. The Brookings institution, for example, is considered to be centrist think tank which, if true, would make my analysis totally meaningless.
Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin [©NCPR]
NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, at least, seems to agree with my assessment of the Brookings institution. In a response to the FAIR study he wrote:
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.
I guess, I'll just have to leave it up to my readers to decide the issue.
Fresh Air host Terry Gross recently hailed the Heritage Foundation as "a think tank with the self-described mission of formulating and promoting conservative policies" while naming the Brookings Institution "a think tank which describes itself as centrist and non-partisan." Indeed, most "think tanks" think of themselves as centrist and non-partisan, hence the only thing remarkable here is that the Heritage Foundation professed to being conservative.
There is no question that the Brookings Institution is a liberal organization. You only have to look at their roster of scholars who almost without exception have a connection with the Democratic Party or with labor unions. Its current President, Strobe Talbott, served from 1993 - 2001 under Clinton in the State Department, seven of those years as Deputy Secretary of State.