NPR listeners (and some non-listeners) have made up their minds.
They are convinced that NPR is biased... but there is no consensus as to what that bias is.
Kenneth Tomlinson, the chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), has raised the issue of bias at NPR. Tomlinson has also expressed specific concerns about NPR's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To address these and other issues, CPB, which funds a portion of public broadcasting, has appointed two ombudsmen -- one for the left and one for the right.
A point of clarification: I am neither one of those two ombudsmen.
My remit is only to NPR and its listeners, not to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and certainly not to any political party or tendency. It is a sad comment on the state of both journalism and ombudsmanship that this needs to be said at all.
PBS, the public television service, has announced that it, too, will soon have an ombudsman. Its programs often evoke a strong response and many viewers have used me as a conduit to get their concerns through to PBS. I'm happy that PBS will have its own viewers' advocate.
Many NPR listeners say they are unconvinced about CPB's intentions and I agree with them. In my opinion, the idea of a "political" ombudsman is a contradiction in terms. Ombudsmen are neutral adjudicators, not partisan advocates. That is the modus operandi for ombudsmen at all other newspapers and broadcasters.
Undermining Public Broadcasting
The appointment of the CPB ombudsmen has, indeed, accomplished something: It has sown doubts (or reinforced existing ones) among many listeners (and viewers) that there is something fundamentally wrong at NPR and PBS. But these doubts are based on impressions, innuendo and hearsay evidence.
Questioning the practices of journalism is always a good thing. But declaring a priori that there is bias, as Mr. Tomlinson has, contradicts the high standards of public broadcast stewardship that CPB has always advocated.
Where's the Bias?
But now that the allegation has been made, do accusations of bias at NPR stand up to scrutiny?
Some listeners think NPR already has a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) bias. They say NPR is overwhelmingly liberal on a number of issues. Others insist that NPR has, for many years, been slowly, yet discernibly drifting to the right.
What exactly is editorial bias? Is it something hard to recognize but -- as Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography -- something we'll know when we see it? And if NPR has a bias, what -- if anything -- can or should be done about it?
Some listeners say they know it is there, because they can hear it, even if they can't put a finger on it.
Listener Sam Johnson insists there is bias (he doesn't say precisely what it is), but he's prepared to live with it:
I think you have one-sided news, but I listen.
Margaret Davis seems to think NPR has changed and she doesn't like what she hears:
What is happening to NPR? I'm detecting a subtle change in programming direction. Less hard news, soft-pedaling this administration's decision-making, the introduction of religion, more 'light' subjects which I can get on afternoon TV if that's what I am reduced to, and on and on...
My deep interest in NPR has always been its wonderful source of hard INFORMATION. It's all we have! Please don't introduce so much 'filler' stuff. We have become so isolated from what is really happening worldwide... We need to know this, and we certainly won't get it from the right-wing corporate radio stations pounding at us nationwide.
Listener Phil Harris agrees that it is time that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting started looking into NPR's biases:
I have been watching with interest the hand-wringing concerning increased attention to strike political balance in NPR's programming. I have largely stopped listening to NPR, and have become uninterested in personally donating because of the lack of balance. I find it stunning that executives at NPR do not recognize the fact that the perceived support for keeping things the way they are, comes largely from those who remain, and who in fact share the same side of the biased viewpoint. You have long ago lost many of us who may have provided an opposing viewpoint.
Please tell your leadership, that balance is long overdue. They very well need to listen to these outside pressures if they truly wish to achieve public broadcasting that serves all taxpayers and potential contributors.
'Doing a Critical Job'
Listener A. Amer thinks everything is fine as it is:
Well, I think you guys are doing a critical job. There are only a few options left for news that isn't bought and paid for.
In this fractious environment, any news organization that claims to be apolitical is assumed to be liberal by default.
NPR Fits Today's Definitions of 'Liberal Journalism'
If that is today's idea of liberalism, then perhaps NPR fits it. But such a practice also results in the best of American journalism.
Most of the e-mails I receive are heartfelt. If public opinion means anything in today's culture, it would be foolish to ignore expressions of discontent.
Following the Money?
Most of the complaints about NPR's bias concern public radio funding. NPR, like other public broadcasters, receives public money. It's not much these days -- less than 1 percent comes from the CPB. Public radio stations average 13 percent of their funding from the CPB and some of that money comes back to NPR in program fees and membership dues.
Those opposed to public money for public broadcasting insist that NPR rely entirely on paid subscriptions and corporate support.
Other listeners think that by taking federal money, public radio can guard against corporations being able to influence the news. These listeners worry that NPR already accepts too much in underwriting from corporations and foundations. They find federal and (for some stations) state money an acceptable counterbalance.
NPR's value for many listeners is that it operates without a lot of preconditions. It is not an explicitly political news organization. It does not have one program for the left and another for the right.
I think NPR implicitly believes that listeners deserve reliable and contextual information presented without partisanship. Those may be high ideals, but there is no better reason to be in journalism. And that may be what angers the partisans on both sides.
NPR needs to state its principles and post them prominently on its Web site. It would be reassuring for many listeners -- especially these days.
Next week, a look at what listeners should expect of NPR in this heated journalistic and political environment.