Much has been written about media bias by academics and journalists. Like any human endeavor, journalism is an imperfect craft. It is probably unrealistic to expect that any journalistic endeavor can find universal agreement and acceptance.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funds a significant amount of both public radio and television. Appropriately, in my opinion, CPB needs to know whether the American public values what it funds. CPB commissioned opinion polls from two pollsters — one from the left and one from the right. (I have never been clear as to how this constitutes credible polling... but that's another column). Both pollsters found, among those surveyed, a high level of public trust in both NPR and PBS. They also found that 20 percent thought that public broadcasting leans to the left and 10 percent say it leans to the right.
Yet in spite of expressions of support, validating opinion polls and the growth of the public radio audience over the past seven years, the accusations of bias keep on coming.
Many are from pundits who accuse public broadcasting and other establishment media outlets of being biased, liberal and elitist. Other pundits (from the left) say public radio is biased, conservative and elitist.
The accusations come from the blogs, and from talk radio and cable TV shoutfests. They have a harsh and usually conservative point of view. But increasingly, attacks from left about NPR's supposed drift to the right, are also part of the landscape.
Mostly Fact-Based Reporting
I note that the accusations of bias often come from media organizations whose stock in trade is largely opinion. These critiques are directed at news organizations — like NPR — whose main function is fact-based reporting; opinion and commentary are secondary.
Mainstream journalism in general, and NPR in particular, operates under the assumption that the truth of the matter must be established, without fear or favor. It attempts to do this first through reporting. Only once the facts are established, are opinion, commentary and analysis added.
Some of NPR's critics have acknowledged that while NPR tries to be fair, it fails because it is incapable or unwilling to recognize its many biases.
But no one I have spoken to in public broadcasting thinks that NPR should ever be a bully pulpit for one side or another. In public radio, people may have their views, but they must be secondary to the presentation of accurate and contextual information.
That may be the single quality that distinguishes NPR and other so-called "mainstream media." NPR adheres to the ideals of accuracy and context. Whether it achieves these goals in its news programs is what keeps ombudsmen and media critics employed.
At NPR, there are discussions about whether the people who are attracted to work in public radio are too much alike. There is an increasing recognition that NPR needs to be a more diverse organization at every level — culturally as well as politically. And that's a discussion that is long overdue.
Is Sympathy Biased?
Many journalists (including some at NPR) feel that their role is to defend the underdog. The implication is that the top dog can look after itself. Sympathy for the underdog is not necessarily evidence of bias — although it can be. It may simply be a good way to report complex issues using the plight of individuals to explain them.
Journalists agree that there are simply too many checks and balances in the editorial process to allow for open partisanship. But news organizations everywhere engage in "group-think" about stories. Does NPR make sure that other perspectives are given enough consideration when editorial decisions are made? I think NPR needs to do a better job at making sure those ideas are heard.
What Do Listeners Want?
For more than five years, I have heard from many listeners (and a few non-listeners too). Based on perhaps half a million or more e-mails, phone calls and letters, I would suggest that people want specific qualities from NPR. Here are some of the things they want NPR to be:
· Companionable. Because radio is such an intimate medium (we wake up, wash up, have breakfast, go jogging with it...) listeners want NPR to be a companion.
· Recognizable. Again for many of the same reasons, listeners feel they know the people on the radio. They like it when they can agree with what they hear; they yell at the radio when they hear something they find objectionable.
· Reliable. The radio tells us locally if it is "safe," physically and psychologically, to go out in our cities and towns. Old radio hands used to call this "survivor information" — a somewhat dramatic description of weather and traffic news. Listeners also want to be assured that the information — whether it is from their town council, the state legislature, the Congress or Iraq — is reliable.
· Independent. Is the news complete? Does it make sense? Is it fair? Have all sides been heard from? And what might it mean in the short and the long term? Who might benefit? Who might not?
· Other Voices. Are we hearing from a reasonable cross-section of opinion? Are there unheard ideas that are worth reporting? Or, in the words of former PBS host Robert McNeil, is journalism simply "a cheering section for the side that has already won?"
If a news organization is able to convince its listeners, readers and viewers that it has their broadest (as opposed to their narrowest) concerns uppermost, then issues around bias should tend to diminish. But these days, because of the tensions and polarization in American political life, that is hard to do.
"A Journalistic Chiropractor"
Some readers and listeners may dismiss this as ombudsman-ly wishful thinking and self-delusion and more proof that an ombudsman is nothing but (as one of my early critics said) "a journalistic chiropractor — lots of adjustments, and no cures."
My sense is that NPR is no more biased than many other mainstream American journalistic organizations that have belief in an obligation to provide the truth in as fair and contextual a manner as possible.
That may be insufficient for the critics, but it remains within the broadest and best traditions of American journalism.
I think that NPR's biases are not to be found in what it broadcasts (although its programs are not entirely without their slants, implications and suggestions and listeners are always quick to point them out), but in what it doesn't broadcast.
Does NPR spend enough time looking at what's happening in those underreported areas of American life? I have my own lists and I am sure that everyone does as well.
It would be good to know from listeners what they feel NPR is not covering. Perhaps a definition of bias on NPR can be found there.
All journalism — NPR included — is susceptible to bias. Journalists aren't lab-coated scientists performing value-free experiments in a sterile laboratory. It is an imperfect (social) science in many ways. But journalism's response to criticism is a good indication of how seriously a news organization takes its obligations to serve. The CPB criticisms and comments can and should be taken seriously... but with the same level of seriousness with which they are offered.
One interesting consequence: the very fact that CPB raised the question of bias at NPR has convinced some listeners that the bias exists: When they hear a liberal opinion, they insist that CPB is right. Others, when they hear a conservative opinion, say it's proof that the pressure is on and that NPR has caved in to CPB pressures.
The truth is NPR has always aired points of view from all sides. I have criticized NPR for not airing a broader range of ideas from both the left and the right, but in my opinion, NPR has always had ideas from all areas.
You just have to listen.