More Democrats than Republicans find NPR's stories believable, according to research presented by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, a non-partisan organization that uses data to evaluate media performance.
"NPR and PBS have among the bigger partisan gaps in believability," said Tom Rosenstiel, the Project's director. "Thirty seven percent of Democrats say they believe most or all of what they hear on NPR, compared with 29 percent of independents and 16 percent of Republicans. That is a Democrat vs. Republican gap of 21 points, up from two years earlier."
He made his remarks Tuesday at an event hosted by the University of Missouri School of Journalism and The National Press Club as part of a symposium on the Future of Public Broadcasting.
Accusations of bias have dogged NPR practically since it came into being 40 years ago. These findings are likely to be used to bolster the argument – accurate or not – that public radio is liberal because its listeners tend to be, and therefore doesn't deserve federal funding.
Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently that public radio's 33.7 million weekly listeners tend to skew differently from that perception. "In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as 'middle of the road' or 'conservative,' " he wrote. These surveys covered all of public radio, including NPR's competitors.
NPR's own research shows that of its 26.8 million listeners 23 percent self-identify as 'middle of the road'. Roughly 37 percent identify as liberal or somewhat liberal, and 26 percent as conservative or somewhat conservative. This roughly tracks Rosenstiel's data that NPR's audience skews more independent (14 percent) and Democratic (14 percent) than Republican (6 percent.)
From Pew's September report:
"When it comes to radio, Democrats (14%) and independents (14%) are more likely than Republicans (6%) to say they regularly listen to NPR. Nearly a quarter of liberal Democrats (23%) regularly get news from NPR, compared with 10% of conservative and moderate Democrats, 8% of moderate and liberal Republicans and 6% of conservative Republicans. By contrast, 13% of Republicans (including 17% of conservative Republicans) say they regularly listen to Rush Limbaugh's radio program; that compares with just 4% of independents and 2% of Democrats."
Does a listener's political leaning really matter? Rosenstiel noted, as I do repeatedly after three years in this job, that bias is in the ears and eyes of the beholder.
As an example, despite many in the public thinking NPR is biased, Rosenstiel's research showed that NPR and PBS were more neutral toward President Obama during his first 100 days on the job in 2009 than were most news organizations.
"Fifty percent of all stories on the [PBS] NewsHour and 52 percent on NPR were neutral, compared with 40 percent in the media generally," Rosenstiel said. "On NPR, 28 percent were positive, less than 37 percent in the media generally." For methodology, check here.
He has additional data suggesting that, compared to the rest of the news media, the NewsHour offered more coverage of substantive policy questions and less about so-called "horserace" questions, such as which politicians are most popular. "The same is true of NPR, though to a noticeably smaller degree," said Rosensteil.
At the same time, he noted that 31 percent of the coverage studied on NPR involves foreign affairs – which NPR touts as one of its strengths. On commercial talk radio, that number is 3.5 percent.
But what does Pew's data mean?
"The survey data shows that Democrats and independents are more likely to believe what they hear on NPR than are Republicans," said Rosenstiel. "That doesn't establish that NPR is biased. Nor is it unusual to have a partisan gap in believability at most news organizations. But this gap is higher than others by some percentage points. Given that you have members of Congress and others who have long argued that public broadcasting has a bias, this result is not surprising. But it is a distinction that I would think NPR would be concerned about."
NPR is obviously concerned about congressional efforts to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is the quasi-governmental agency that doles out $430 million to public broadcasting – 75 percent of which goes to TV and 25 percent to radio.
For now, the funding for the current 2011 budget will remain intact. But public broadcasting is now battling to save funding for the 2012 budget.
As Caryn Mathes, general manager of WAMU in Washington, noted, public radio has been under attack off and on since 1982. "But the sustained nature of this attack is different this year," she said.