How Public is Public Radio?

A study of NPR's guest list

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The list of those who have criticized National Public Radio over the years for its perceived 'liberal bias' reads like a Who's Who of well-known American conservatives: Richard Nixon, Newt Gingrich, Andy Sullivan, just to name a few. But is NPR really the leftist bastion that its faithful listeners, as well as its scathing critics, take it for? The media watchdog group FAIR questions that assumption after keeping a tally of those who NPR interviewed over month-long periods in 1993 and again in 2003. In its groundbreaking report FAIR concludes that NPR still focuses on the elite majority over the general public even though National Public Radio was launched in 1971 as an alternative to commercial media that would 'promote personal growth rather than corporate gain' and 'speak with many voices, many dialects.' Furthermore, women make up only one-fifth of all NPR sources today, and only 15 percent of all professionals quoted.

Perhaps even more surprising, a vast majority of all political sources quoted on NPR during the month-long studies were Republican -- 57 percent in 1993 and a whopping 61 percent last June. But in a conciliatory, albeit critical written response to FAIR's study, NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin takes issue with FAIR for failing to take into account what was going on in the news at the time. '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.'

Meanwhile, Republicans may have been perceived as the silenced minority in 1993 with Clinton in the White House and Democrats controlling the Senate. '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,' Dvorkin writes, and he asks: 'Is NPR now ignoring the Democrats in a way it once may have ignored the Republicans?'

Quite possibly. FAIR concluded that Republicans not only enjoy a substantial partisan edge as NPR sources, but they own the top seven spots in frequency of appearance as well. Here is your 'perceived liberal bias' All-Star Team: 'George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8), and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.'
-- Jacob Wheeler