How Public is Public Radio?

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

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How Public
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NPR Responds to FAIR’s NPR Study

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