Last week's column examined whether NPR News relies too much on conservative think tanks to provide expertise. Many listeners wrote to complain that the column was too vague in pointing this out.
I agree that I should have been clearer. So, for those who missed it, I will state it again: I believe NPR relies too much on think tanks in general and on conservative think tanks in particular -- especially when it comes to economics, and defense policy issues. NPR must make sure there is a better balance between liberal and conservative experts in these partisan and contentious areas.
Now, a look at another issue that has some listeners confused: They tell me that they hear an apparent difference in editorial standards among NPR programs, and they wonder why this is. These listeners specifically mention NPR's interview programs such as The Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
The complaint I often receive is that these programs have a strong partisan bent, usually to the left. Listeners ask if personal opinions are allowed to the hosts of interview programs, compared to newsmagazine programs -- such as Morning Edition or All Things Considered.
For example, listener Steve Scanlan was unhappy when he heard Lynne Cheney interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show on Nov. 30. The interview began as a discussion about history books for children, written by the vice president's wife. It quickly went on to discussions about U.S. policy in Iraq, and Ms. Cheney's conservative cultural views.
Diane Rehm's tough line of questioning must be politically motivated, says Mr. Scanlan:
I just got done listening to Diane Rehm interviewing Lynne Cheney. Why did she have to attack her? I've listened to Diane for quite a while and enjoy her when she doesn't get on her high horse with... subjects that display her left-wing ideology... Some of the questions were downright insulting, as Cheney said on the show.
"Not so," says Sandra Pinkard, the executive producer of The Diane Rehm Show. She thinks that interview programs must push the limits in order to get past the niceties, and onto the substantial issues, especially when it involves political partisans:
Mrs. Cheney is a national figure who evokes very strong sentiments across the political spectrum. Many, many listeners (hundreds) e-mailed Diane after that interview to thank her for a tough but balanced interview. A few sent us messages to complain. Of these, there were two themes: Some listeners were upset that Diane did not limit her questions to the content of Mrs. Cheney's book. When we set up the interview, Mrs. Cheney agreed to a wide ranging interview so she was likely anticipating many, if not all, of the questions during the hour. Others believed some of Diane's questions were aggressive -- particularly on the issue of U.S. torture policy. What some considered hostile questioning, many others viewed to be appropriate follow up to answers from Mrs. Cheney that seemed to skirt the issue. I don't really think it's possible to have a thoughtful interview without sometimes pushing for answers that guests are reluctant to give. Push too far too often and a host will lose credibility and listeners. But if the host fails to take some risks that challenge pat answers, the audience is similarly ill-served. A balance needs to be struck during each and every hour on the air. Our growing listenership seems to confirm that despite the many potential pitfalls of live radio interviews, Diane is able to get it right much of the time.
A similar comment concerning Fresh Air With Terry Gross involved a Dec. 1 interview with two social scientists who have studied how Republicans are changing the political process to create a permanent Republican majority. Some listeners thought the program was a partisan attack on the majority party even though the program included an interview with a prominent Republican, Sen. Trent Lott.
Danny Miller is the program's executive producer:
The... interview contained criticisms of how the Republican congressional leadership wields power and intimidates Republican moderates into taking the party line, [but] the authors should not be labeled as partisan. They are academics, and their book is based largely on empirical research from a number of sources -- public opinion polling, voting records, and the conclusions of non-partisan research groups. Nonetheless, since there was also some analysis involved, we thought it was the right thing to do to have a brief talk with Senator Lott -- not in the spirit of point-by-point debate, but to acknowledge that there are of course other perspectives. Senator Lott did a much longer interview with us a few months ago -- and we'll have time to go more in depth with Senator McCain (Republican of Arizona) next week (Dec. 6).
NPR News and NPR's 'Acquired' Programs
Nevertheless, many listeners are concerned that there appear to be different editorial standards at NPR -- one for the news programs directly produced by NPR (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, etc.) and another for programs that NPR doesn't produce but distributes under its aegis (such as The Diane Rehm Show and Fresh Air with Terry Gross).
Jay Kernis is senior vice president of programming at NPR. He sees it differently:
First, any presumption that we have different editorial standards for our acquired shows is inaccurate. Every show that bears the NPR brand is obligated to meet NPR's editorial standards. There is an absolute expectation that those programs will cover stories and do interviews with the same fairness, impartiality and integrity as NPR producers do.
...Listeners who have written to you may be hearing the difference between newsmagazines and talk/interview shows. NPR newsmagazines contain all kinds of opinion pieces -- analysis, commentary, essays, reviews -- and are careful to label them as such.
Talk shows feature a fair amount of opinion, in some cases, through live interviews and phone calls. Although guests are carefully vetted and screened, much of the value of those programs is in the presentation of diverse perspectives and provocative ideas. By the very nature of the interview shows, the guests are almost certain to be highly opinionated and expert on their subjects. The job of the interviewers is to make certain -- through their research and incisive questions -- that our listeners clearly understand that there are opposing points of view on issues of controversy.
'Dictatorship of the Hostetariat?'
I often hear from listeners who feel that all NPR programs tend to reflect the opinions of the program's hosts in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. This is an assumption that is deeply held by many listeners, who believe that each program must be the solo product of the host. Many suspect that the ideas (and the biases) of the hosts predominate.
The reality is more complicated.
Hosts -- like other members of a production unit -- contribute to the program content. But they rarely have (and should not have) complete veto power over what goes out on the air. They may have a lot of influence, especially when a program is named after them. But at NPR at least, there does not seem to be what my news colleagues and I not so fondly termed a "dictatorship of the hostetariat."
That said, I have to also acknowledge that program hosts, whose names are in the title of their programs, are in a more complicated place. They know that their listeners often tune in specifically because of their personalities and for their skills at presenting the issues. The producers of these programs are very conscious of making sure that the host is more than just an eponymous presenter. It is here than one can hear a mix of journalistic integrity and attitude, and it is perhaps inevitable that partisan listeners will hear only the latter.
In my experience, NPR news programs (no matter the source) are produced by many people with differing ideas, and who work for a common purpose -- to make shows that showcase the skills of the hosts. The range and clash of differing ideas could always be stronger, especially at a place like NPR which has a strong sense of its own identity and mission. But that's a subject for another column.
NPR needs to reassure its listeners, by clearly and regularly explaining, how editorial processes work and what judgments are required to make the tough, daily editorial decisions whether in its interview programs or its newsmagazines.
I have always found that there is enormous public interest and curiosity about these issues. It would be a wonderful service if more programs would periodically make their own hosts and producers available to the public, either on air or in a "Web chat," to answer these questions directly from the listeners.