NPR: Mysteries of the Organization, Part I : NPR Public Editor NPR's Ombudsman says he's fielding more complaints than usual about NPR's apparent over-reliance on political think tanks... and a failure to identify the politics that motivate a given think-tank's position on various issues.

NPR: Mysteries of the Organization, Part I

I have had more complaints than usual about NPR's apparent over-reliance on political think tanks. These listeners say they don't understand why NPR News chooses to interview certain experts over others or why NPR considers these people to be qualified.

Concerned listeners say NPR regularly fails to identify the politics that motivate the think tanks and wonder why NPR seems to ignore this key fact.

'Give... Full Disclosure...'

A recent series of reports on matters pertaining to defense policy, intelligence and the war in Iraq seems to have elicited many of these listener concerns. One example is a December 1st report by NPR’s national security correspondent Jackie Northam. She reported on an investigation into whether some Pentagon departments may have distorted intelligence reports prior to the war in Iraq.

That report angered listener Aubrey Neas:

I think that it's time for NPR to give its listeners a full disclosure. Yesterday (December 1) on "All Things Considered," I heard yet another report in which a representative from the American Enterprise Institute gave us, your listeners, his opinion about why there were plenty of reasons to go to war in Iraq and take down Saddam Hussein's regime. I have been hoping that your reporters would spare us from such information from biased groups, such as the American Enterprise Institute, without full disclosure. Does your average listener, for example, know much about the American Enterprise Institute, or what their mission is, or why this institute has worked so hard to get its information fed to the news media, such that it can influence policies in the USA and beyond?

But Northam's report did not rely solely on the interview with Gary Schmitt from the American Enterprise Institute. Her report also included an interview with Daniel Benjamin from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is, by reputation, a more liberal institution.

'Consistent With Most News Organizations'

The issue of disclosure came up again in a report on November 30th. NPR Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren reported on how the Department of Defense is planting pro-U.S. stories in Iraqi newspapers. The report included an interview with Dan Goure, who was described as "a military analyst from the Arlington, Virginia-based Lexington Institute." That elicited more listener reaction about NPR's neglecting to identify the Institute as what they consider a conservative think tank.

I asked Hendren for his response to that criticism:

Our style in describing (the) Lexington (Institute) is consistent with that of most major news organizations. It has indeed been described as a conservative think tank... but (those who do) are in the minority. Our style mirrors that of most (newspapers). In checking attribution by other major news organizations, very few offer descriptions that vary from our style, and some offer no description at all.

Defense analysts are by and large a conservative group, and I think listeners understand that. Those who wrote in certainly did. Also, using a lone conservative was not merely justifiable in the story, it was necessary for balance. Out of four sources whose voices were heard in that story, two were critical of the military's policy of planting news stories in Iraqi papers, and a third was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talking about Iraq's "free media" before news of the program was disclosed. To neglect a point of view of a significant segment of the public, and certainly a significant segment of defense analysts, would slant the story.

As for Goure's ties to the Pentagon, anyone who is familiar with the defense industry will acknowledge that it would be very difficult indeed to find any nonprofit organization that does military analysis and does not include officials who have worked in the Pentagon. According to his biography, Goure's last Pentagon post was with the DOD's 2001 transition team. That's not a close enough tie that we would ordinarily point it out in every story.

There's another problem with using such a descriptor. For consistency's sake it also makes little sense to describe the organization as conservative when we sometimes quote sources (that) aren't as clearly conservative from the same organization.

So, to label or not to label? There are it seems, advantages and disadvantages to identifying the politics of think tanks.

Some think tanks may be easily categorized. But their experts are often not. Many think tanks include scholars who come from all hues of the political spectrum. On the radio, a short definition may be accurate when it comes to the think tank's philosophy, but totally inaccurate when describing individuals who work there.

Another disadvantage is that if NPR identifies the think tank as liberal or conservative, that may act as a signal for some in the audience to ignore the ideas that they are about to hear.

Tallying the Think Tanks

NPR often calls on think tanks for comments. But NPR does not lean on the so-called conservative think tanks as many in the audience seem to think.

Here's the tally sheet for the number of times think tank experts were interviewed to date on NPR in 2005:

American Enterprise - 59

Brookings Institute - 102

Cato Institute - 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies - 39

Heritage Foundation - 20

Hoover Institute - 69

Lexington Institute - 9

Manhattan Institute - 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend to be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture. That seems to be where most conservative thinking on the issues of the day can be most easily found. Journalism in general -- including NPR -- has become overly reliant on the easily obtained offerings of the think tanks.

And if, as John Hendren says, most news organizations resist labeling think tanks, why should NPR be any different? In my opinion, given the fractious times we live in, more information is probably better than less. Putting experts in some sort of context will go a long way to allaying the suspicions of many listeners who seem convinced that NPR is trying to portray experts as neutral when in fact, they aren't.

More Context Needed

So I'm with the listeners who complain about NPR’s decision not to more fully identify the think tanks. For many, the lack of a political context can sound too much like "inside-the-Beltway" reporting and I agree. NPR also needs to be consistent about how think tanks are identified; too often conservative institutions are identified as such but liberal ones are not.

More importantly, NPR needs to make sure that it is presenting an appropriate range of ideas and not just from one side of the debate.

A Correction

In the previous column, I said the number of individual listeners who listen to NPR on a weekly basis (that's how radio audience figures are tallied) is 19 million. But according to Ben Robins in NPR's Research Department, the number is higher:

Based on the latest numbers (Spring 2005), the audience for the NPR programs is a little higher, 22 million, and the audience for NPR programs and the NPR Newscasts is 25 million.

I stand happily corrected.