The Bias They Can't See: The NPR Set's Lack of Self-Awareness

"Some of my best friends are conservatives." That seems to be the attitude expressed by those within NPR who claim that the taxpayer-funded network is not liberal. These people deny their own liberal bias just as vehemently as "respectable" people have long denied their racism. We should not take this denial as untruthful. Instead, we have to understand where these people live and where they come from. They honestly believe, I would argue, that they play the journalism game very close to, if not right down, the middle. Such bias is probably more troublesome, more difficult to confront than Bull Connor turning the water hoses on civil rights marchers.

This week, Bill Moyers, a long-time feeder at the public broadcasting trough, denied the existence of liberal bias at NPR. In a piece published at Salon, Moyers made a very strong statement:

We've heard no NPR reporter -- not a one -- advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more.

How do we respond to such a claim? Personally, I agree with it. Moyers is technically correct when he claims that reporters do not advocate in their own voice on NPR -- at least not very often. But is a savvy and experienced journalist like Moyers really so naïve as to believe that the only way in which liberal bias can manifest itself is in the clear advocacy of a reporter?

Let's return to the racism parallel for a moment. Imagine a business leader making a statement like this: "I never use racial epithets, never tell racist jokes, and never claim that members of a certain race are less qualified and capable than anyone else. Therefore, I am not a racist." Such a statement is routinely laughed off as meaningless. So should Bill Moyers' statement be laughed off.

NPR's reporters, regardless of how much they might annoy us, are clever, intelligent people. As professional communicators, hired for their abilities and not how good their hair appears on camera, they know how to make words sing and dance. They understand how to advocate without advocating.

Advocacy begins with the choice of stories to cover. When you cover the "controversial" Arizona immigration law with great attention and give very little attention to stories that reflect badly on immigrants, you exhibit bias even though no clear advocacy has been shown. Of course, the media will argue that they cover the "newsworthy" stories. This is convenient cover when you get to decide yourself what is and isn't newsworthy.

Advocacy continues with the sources used in covering a story. You can stack the deck by citing only sources that agree with your position. That level of bias is rather obvious and, frankly, not NPR's modus operandi. NPR tends to be quite scrupulous in including multiple sides of a story. When they run a story on gay marriage, for example, they will typically interview both advocates and strong opponents of the practice. At times they will tilt in one direction on their source list, but other times they will tilt in the other direction. Does this mean that NPR does not use a source list to advocate? Not so fast.

How much does each source get to say? What matters is each source asked to speak upon? In what order are the sources cited? Is the source heard in his or her own voice, quoted in the reporter's voice, or paraphrased? All of these are questions that demonstrate ways to inject the "objective" reporter's position into the story. Several years ago, FAIR did a source-counting report in which they proclaimed NPR's news to be largely unbiased. Such a simplistic view of communication either reflects poorly on FAIR's abilities or their honesty.

Selection, editing, and reporter transitions provide a point for advocacy to enter a story. Without seeing the entire available information from which a reporter assembled a story, we cannot make a firm claim of fairness or bias, but neither can Bill Moyers.

One additional entrance of advocacy comes in the questions asked of sources. The material from which a reporter can select depends largely on the questions asked. We have all seen hardball and softball questions asked of sources during on-air interviews. Hardball questions tend to yield more defensive, more circumscribed answers, while softball questions allow the source to opine freely. Does Bill Moyers honestly believe that NPR reporters do not ask tougher questions of those with whom they disagree?

Clearly, advocacy can take many forms beyond a reporter shouting into a microphone and demanding more government spending or trumpeting the other positions Moyers chooses. Yet I believe Moyers to be speaking what he perceives as truth.

Bill Moyers is a member of the group I call the NPR Set. These people, having attended the same schools and lived in the same parts of town, understandably see things in the same way. They're blinded to other points of view just as surely as the "benign" racist described above.

Such racists -- the sort who do not use impolitic words or join lynch mobs -- can see the different people around them just as surely as Bill Moyers can see the conservatives around him. They just can't understand those people or why they view the world in a different way. Similarly, the NPR Set cannot understand conservatives. They see us, but they assume us to be ignorant or stupid or disingenuous.

In their own eyes, they are not liberal. They're just right. They look around and see their circle of educated, Panera-eating, Wal-Mart-bashing cohorts. They talk to others in their set, others who see identifying themselves as Democrats to be as unnecessary as to identify themselves as human. After all, what else would they be? They belong to the same clubs and organizations, shop at the same stores and farmers' markets, and work in the same sheltered workplaces. They know that George Soros and James Carville are angels, while David Koch and Karl Rove are devils. Like Steve Inskeep, they know that NPR must be unbiased, since a good number of conservatives listen to it.

The fact that Bill Moyers cannot perceive any bias at NPR speaks volumes about the bias of the NPR Set. Just as Rudyard Kipling wrote, with no sense of bias, about the "White Man's Burden," the NPR Set see themselves not as exemplars of liberal bias. They see themselves as the right-thinking people taking on the "Right-Thinking Person's Burden" to a benighted population of bitter clingers.

This group has every right to think and behave in such a manner. They do not, however, have the right to do that, even partly, on my tax dollars.

Mark Browning writes about matters rural at
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