OTM takes up the question posed by Ira Glass: Does NPR have a liberal bias? Brooke wrestles first with the (surprisingly hard to define) terms. What is liberal? What is bias? What is NPR? We then hear three different perspectives on NPR’s political leanings from political scientist Daniel Hallin, media researcher Tom Rosenstiel and conservative volunteer-listener Sam Negus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone, with the second part of our special hour on liberal bias and public radio.
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After that conversation with Ira, both our shows were flooded with comments. So, we proceeded to wade into the subject. It was, predictably enough, a quagmire. I mean, look no further than the terms themselves, What is bias? What do we mean when we invoke the term “liberal?” And even defining “NPR” is complicated, I mean, really complicated.
So we started at what we thought was the beginning. Bias: it’s a moving target. In his 1986 book, The Uncensored War, communications professor Daniel Hallin drew a simple diagram depicting three spheres in journalism. They're called Hallin’s Spheres. Picture a doughnut. The hole in the doughnut is the sphere of consensus, and here are issues and views we can all agree on: democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here, truths are self evident and journalists don't feel the need to be objective.
No, that’s reserved for the doughnut itself, the sphere of legitimate controversy. Here’s where the bulk of journalism takes place – gun control, interest rates, budget matters and abortion, issues on which reasonable people can disagree and where journalists are obliged to present both sides. Outside the doughnut lies the sphere of deviance, limbo, where viewpoints are deemed unworthy of debate. The pro-pedophilia position, for example, does not get a hearing in mainstream media.
But Hallin created his spheres in the 1980s, before Fox News and MSNBC, the rise of talk radio and the blogosphere. Certain views that a generation ago would have been relegated to the sphere of deviance, for example, questioning the birth certificate of the President of the United States, Hallin says have now forced their way onto the doughnut.
DANIEL HALLIN: When I made my diagram, there was only one set of spheres, let's say, and everybody kind of agreed on what they were. The boundaries might get fuzzy. But now I think our media have become fragmented and pluralized, so that you have different sub-communities that have different ideas of where the boundaries lie, right? So a generation ago, the questions whether Obama can legitimately be president, this would have been rejected both by elites in Washington of both parties and by the media as just absolutely outside the proper bounds of political debate, and it would have been excluded. Today there’s just a lot less consensus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Hallin’s doughnut has been blasted into crumbs by a confluence of voices. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but where does that leave NPR?
DANIEL HALLIN: NPR, like, actually, quite a few of the mainstream news organizations in the U.S., I would say still adheres to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides. But I think that this is a period in which it’s harder to do. I think it’s much more difficult to legitimize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean it’s more difficult to legitimize?
DANIEL HALLIN: Well, you could convince people that you were, in fact, being neutral by sticking to a point in the center between Republicans and Democrats and giving them both a hearing in an earlier period. Nowadays that just doesn't work as well because different segments of the population have different ideas of where the center really is, of what’s a legitimate political point of view. So I think that all of the news organizations that try and stick to the old-fashioned patterns of journalistic professionalism, they're all a little bit on the defensive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you think mainstream journalists should respond to the fuzziness of the sphere of consensus, the sphere of legitimate debate and the sphere of deviance, that which should not be discussed?
DANIEL HALLIN: At what point would we decide that global warming is not really a legitimate subject of controversy anymore? Because the truth is within scientific communities it’s not. Within the political public sphere there’s still a big controversy about it. And that is somewhat troubling, that gap.
You know, in many cases I think it’s gonna be the right decision for a journalist to say, we are aware that the science says that there’s not a controversy here, and we are gonna refuse to treat this part of it as though it were controversial. I think that that’s a responsible decision. I think it’s politically risky, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Hallin teaches at the University of California, San Diego. Based on the remark we just heard, he'll be labeled by some as a liberal. The word is applied broadly now to big-L Liberal politics and small-l liberal values, even liberal science, to the point where the word “liberal” itself means almost nothing.
And what does NPR mean? For most people, NPR is whatever they hear when they tune in to public radio. But NPR itself produces or editorially oversees very little of that content. It’s directly responsible for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, the weekend equivalent of those shows and Talk of the Nation. It also distributes shows produced elsewhere – On the Media, Diane Rehm, Fresh Air, and so on.
And then there are the shows that NPR neither produces nor distributes that are among public radio’s most popular – This American Life, Marketplace, A Prairie Home Companion. And finally there are the local shows produced by public radio stations everywhere. But does it even matter, when most of the bias debate coalesces around federal support, the bulk of which goes to stations?
Sam Negus is a libertarian evangelical Christian who listens to a lot of public radio. He wrote Ira that he values it but he won't support it because of some crucial biases he hears. We asked him on to explain, and we had Ira back, too, to hear what irks Negus the most.
SAM NEGUS: The political example that I gave you that stuck out in my mind most recently was from the Friday News Roundup this past Friday.
IRA GLASS: This is The Diane Rehm Show.
SAM NEGUS: They were a couple of journalists and they started the show talking about the labor situation, obviously, Wisconsin and Indiana. So the panelists were talking, and one of the first observations that one of the guests made was that the situation in Wisconsin would probably galvanize the American labor movement. And the tone of her voice told me very clearly that, that she was thrilled by that, which she has every right to be.
What I didn't hear was another guest who shared my ideological concerns with the overarching goals of labor unionism. There was nobody there I felt speaking for the electorate of Wisconsin. The people of Wisconsin went to the polls and they returned the Wisconsin Democrats as the minority in the Senate. And what happens when you’re in the minority is bills get passed that you don't like. That’s democracy, you know -
IRA GLASS: So, Sam -
SAM NEGUS: Yeah.
IRA GLASS: - can I ask you, like, like I don't hear many of the talk shows during the day. The - m – most of the public radio listening I hear is of the news programs, and so, and so -
SAM NEGUS: Okay.
IRA GLASS: - this morning’s Morning Edition, here’s what I heard. You know, they had a lead story which was from Japan about what it’s like right now for the people in the most devastated areas. Then there was a story from here in the U.S. which talked about nuclear power plants in the United States and that surprisingly we're not really building many anymore because natural gas is so much cheaper. And then there’s a story from Bahrain, an, an on-the-ground story about what’s happening there, then a story about Haley Barbour’s run for the presidential nomination and his background and some very convincing things I thought that he said from the stump, and audiences saying what a great impression he made, and a summary of like one early problem in his campaign. And then there’s a report on new laws to restrict abortion, and that had a very standard sort of tick-tock pro-choice, anti-abortion sides, you know, of, of that thing. And, and -
SAM NEGUS: Mm-hmm.
IRA GLASS: And it just seemed very, very straight to me. It seemed like mainstream news coverage, very factual, a lot of on-the-ground reporting, a lot of context. And, and I guess the thing that I'm wondering is do, do you feel like the things that you’re hearing that are making you wince, is, is it really on the fringe? Is it really just now and then? Because to me, when I think of public radio, I feel like - overwhelmingly it is like what I heard this morning on Morning Edition.
SAM NEGUS: Right, okay. So I listen - I listened to the same report this morning, and I particularly listened to the, to the abortion discussion because I knew we were gonna be having this conversation this afternoon. And I thought, okay, let's, let's see what they're saying here. You know, and, and I did, I did think it was fair and balanced.
There is a, a difference between NPR’s kind of news coverage and, and the editorial stuff. I do see that bias less obviously in the news coverage. Maybe the best way to explain it would just be that there are assumptions. It, it, it’s – you can explain facts, but the way that you state facts or the way that you structure them, sometimes it’s more than others and sometimes it’s because I'm, I'm sensitive. I'm aware of my own biases, too. I understand sometimes I'm reading into questions hostility that isn't there, but sometimes it’s definitely there. And I'll give you an example of it that my wife and I have kind of joked about a couple of times. We remember very clearly the morning after the 2006 midterms when the Democrats took back the House. It was just obvious that the anchors on Morning Edition and, and the other shows that followed were happy. You, you can't hide when you’re happy, right?
IRA GLASS: Sam, another, another thing that you wrote me about was more of a cultural bias, and you wrote about something that you heard on Fresh Air.
SAM NEGUS: Okay, so it was Good Friday, I think maybe two years ago. I'd turned on NPR. I had the radio on. It’s, it’s almost always on to NPR, if we’re in the car. Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air was on and her guest was a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar. And the Jesus Seminar, for anyone who isn't familiar, the short version of what they believe that’s offensive to me as an evangelical Christian is that Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead as a bodily historical fact, but that that’s a kind of spiritual metaphor. Now, he can believe that. That’s fine. I'm not about forcing anyone to believe anything.
The point was that a cofounder of the Jesus Seminar was on that show, on a national platform for a solid hour, unopposed. It wasn't a panel. That sent a message to me. And I think the thing that I said in my email, and maybe this is what stuck out to you, Ira, 99.99%, almost everybody in the world and everybody in the history of the world since the time of Christ to now who would identify themselves as a Christian would be deeply offended and upset by this, by this perspective, and moreover, wouldn't consider this person to be a Christian.
IRA GLASS: Because he doesn't believe in the literal resurrection.
SAM NEGUS: Christ himself said, you want to know who I am? The resurrection is who I am. I'm gonna be killed, I'll be in the grave and then I will rise again. That’s the heart of my religion, which is the heart of my being. It’s, it’s everything I am. And I don't mind that that person was on NPR, but I've listened to NPR for years and I've heard many, many religious shows, and I have not once got to the end of the show and thought, man, I am so glad that that guy was on there. He said exactly what I wanted him to say.
IRA GLASS: So, so I understand that you’re saying that there’s this question of tone that you've - that you hear all the time on all the shows, the news shows and the non-news shows, the, the – more the – more the talk shows. But do you think the information that you’re getting, by and large, is reliable?
SAM NEGUS: Yeah. I wouldn't be listening to Morning Edition to get my daily news while I eat my Cheerios and have a cup of coffee if I didn't. I think it’s excellent. But I mean, heck, you wouldn't have gotten so many emails saying the same thing if I was completely barking up the wrong tree, would you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Possibly, because constantly we get arguments that NPR is bending over backwards the other way, from our mail. It happens all the time, which is why we'd like you to keep a diary. Would you do that for us?
SAM NEGUS: Uh, sure.
IRA GLASS: Oh, poor guy. He just wrote a letter and now he’s being dragged into a multi-week project.
SAM NEGUS: No, you - you know, Ira, I'm, I'm -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just one week.
SAM NEGUS: It’s fine, it’s fine. I'm, I'm thrilled to actually have a response. I'm thrilled to think that someone within the organization cares.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you just heard, Sam Negus finds much of the programming on public radio excellent. He listens at the breakfast table. He listens in the car. But he won't support it because of those moments he just described.
But, how to judge the service as a whole? It probably can't be done. But we said we'd try, so we called Tom Rosenstiel, founder and director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center. He quantifies media for a living. So I asked him if he found measuring bias to be a particularly sticky wicket.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: [LAUGHS] Yes, and there’s all kinds of academic literature that we've looked at that suggests that that wicket is really very sticky. First of all, when you are gonna say that something’s biased, you have to have some sense then of what would be unbiased, what would be perfectly accurate on some subject. Even evaluating whether the coverage of a candidate is too positive or negative, you have to take into account, well, how is that candidate doing in the polls? A candidate that’s winning an election is going to have more positive coverage than a candidate that’s losing an election, and you have to somehow control for that.
One other interesting thing on this question of journalistic bias that can be unconscious: the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years ago did a study because they were being attacked by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli members of the community. So they had LSU do a study of their coverage of the Middle East. And the research came back and said, you do have a bias in your coverage. It’s a pro-peace bias. You favor whichever side at any given moment is looking for a ceasefire.
The problem with that is that the people who are advocating violence at any given moment are doing so for a reason. They're not crazy, necessarily. They might be wrong or they might be right. But these are tactics, and when you are always pushing for there shouldn't be violence, you want to freeze the situation in a moment of balance that is disadvantageous to whoever is advocating the violence. So even in what seemed like a benign sort of orientation to their coverage and one that they were unaware of as being biased, academics at least could say, well, there is a bias there that at some times favors one side and sometimes favors another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now let's turn the question on NPR. How do we determine if it has a liberal bias?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: [LAUGHS] It’s not so easy. We've actually talked about this a number of times. There are ways to do it but it’s gonna be pretty limited. We've done some studies that look at the tone of coverage at different moments. We've done campaign coverage, the last two months of the 2008 campaign. I actually asked my staff today to go through that. We never broke out NPR’s coverage as an independent news organization in that study, so we're running those numbers now. We did coverage of healthcare reform, and we could look and see whether NPR deviated from the norm in its use of different language on healthcare. The other thing that we did last year in our biannual Consumption Survey is we asked people why they went to different news outlets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So when you go through the material you have to see if you can break out NPR’s reporting on particular issues, will you share that with us?
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes, and hopefully we'll have that very soon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom, thank you very much.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Rosenstiel is the director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.