Sea of Noise

Wed, 02 Jun 2004

National People's Radio?

FAIR has published the results of a study conducted in 1993 examining NPR's claims to "speak with many voices" and air "alternative points of view".

FAIR finds, essentially, that NPR overrepresents points of view that are white, male, and right-of-center. They arrive at this conclusion primarily by cataloging the sources used on-air. For example, President Bush was the top source during the period they studied, which they count as representing a white, male, Republican point of view. Given FAIR's ideological slant, neither the approach nor the conclusion comes as a shock.

Much of FAIR's criticism rests on the venerable error of the left that conflates the color of person's skin and what's between their legs with the contents of their brain. While I'm sympathetic to the claim that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between Bill Clinton and George Bush, it's not because they both happen to be white men. Nor is someone's political party affiliation, at least as between Republicans and Democrats, a reliable indicator of their point of view on a particular issue, and FAIR doesn't tell us what opinions were expressed on any given issue.

Nor is it clear that the point of view of the source is as important as the way in which that source is used. NPR hasn't earned the sobriquet "National People's Radio" because of where they get their sound bites, but because of what they do with them. If we hear the voices of President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld (the top two sources during the period studied), does that mean the stories in question advance the administration's position? Regular listeners of NPR's news programs know that's not the case--not by a longshot.

Nevertheless, some of FAIR's criticisms are worth considering. Consider, for example, what they call "the elite majority": government officials, "professional experts", "corporate representatives", and the like. These sources made up 64 percent of all sources and, among this group, current and former government or military officials accounted for 31 percent. This is at least symptomatic of a bias in NPR's reporting: that the actions of the government and its political partisans are what constitutes "news".

Simlarly, seven percent of all sources were journalists, and at least 83 percent were "employed by commercial U.S. media outlets". Whatever the viewpoints these sources represent, this does call into question NPR's claim to be the alternative to mainstream, commercial news reporting.

In the end, FAIR's study generates more heat than light. That's a shame, because there is a case to be made for the claim that National Public Radio does not, in fact, represent the public or its interests. NPR creates the best mainstream news programs in the US, but in the end they differ from commercial programs more in professionalism and willingness to examine issues in-depth than in the points of view expressed. Like commercial broadcasters, NPR affiliates are the beneficiaries of FCC policies that promote "big money" interests over small, independent, community-based radio. That NPR gets some of its money by begging on the air and tax-deductible donations from the same companies that support commercial media through advertising is barely a difference that matters. If FAIR were more concerned about true "diversity", that's a point they'd be making more vigorously.

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