Media matters: In defense of NPR, in memory of David Broder

I began thinking anew about the whole media bias issue as I read today about the latest controversy surrounding National Public Radio, which can’t seem to stop itself from giving ammunition to powerful people who want to destroy it. (Reminds me of Bill Clinton, another favorite conservative whipping boy.)

If you’re unaware of the story, a conservative activist posing as a potential donor to NPR caught an NPR fund-raising executive on a hidden camera making derisive comments about Republicans, the Tea Party movement and fundamentalist Christians, and saying that NPR could survive without government support. (About 10 percent of the funding for NPR stations nationally comes from taxpayers, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides the funds for the network, says,)

Both the executive, who had no editorial role with the network, and NPR chief executive officer Vivian Schiller resigned over the controversy.

And the network, which angered conservatives last fall with the firing of commentator Juan Williams over comments about Muslims he made in his other media gig on Fox News, is in the Republican crosshairs again.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has introduced legislation to end federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, saying that “forcing” American taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public broadcasting makes little sense given that the government faces a $14 trillion deficit.

But defenders of public radio say that the Republican objections to public broadcasting are grounded less in the war on the deficit than in the ongoing “culture wars.”

And for conservatives, the video seems to confirm for them what they’ve believed all along — that public radio is run by liberal elitists for liberal elitists. The programming derides Middle America, they say, and uses the air time as an extended attack on conservative values.

Almost none of that stands up to scrutiny.

The NPR audience is far from a monolithic bunch of leftists. A recent survey of NPR listeners by Mediamark Research indicates that 37 percent identify themselves as liberals, 28 as conservatives and 25 percent as middle of the road.

I’ve listened to both the conservative talk radio stations and the NPR stations in the Charlotte media market. The top local conservative AM station presents a six-hour valentine to the Republican Party every afternoon, and the rare liberal callers (there are no liberal hosts) appear to be carefully screened to provide punching bags for the hosts.

By contrast on the NPR news station, if you listen for an hour you will hear credible spokespersons for both conservative and liberal viewpoints in what seems to be a genuine effort to provide all sides of an issue in a generally civil atmosphere.

So isn’t there some snooty liberalism on NPR? Sure. For a conservative to be shocked at this is the equivalent of a left-winger going to a country club and being outraged at finding Republicans. Are there biased reporters and reports? Sure. If you listen long enough you will find that on Fox News, too, or anywhere else where human beings report the news.

So I’m not sure the controversial video reveals anything except for one person’s views, which NPR speedily distanced itself from. The real proof is in the news product, and, the subject of bias, is as someone suggested today, subject to great bias itself.

I was interested in the comments of Andrew Breitbart, another conservative who uses journalistic techniques to attack journalism. If you remember, he made the news himself last fall when a selectively edited video he put on his website appeared to depict a black Department of Agriculture official making racist statements at a banquet. The Obama administration fired her before the report was debunked when the complete video came to light.

Anyway, Breitbart, probably not the most impartial judge of fairness in media, actually almost made an accurate assessment of all this: “Those on the left want it (NPR) publicly funded because it comports with their worldview. Those on the right don’t because it doesn’t comport with their worldview.” Like I said, close but not quite — Breitbart is of the “it’s biased if it doesn’t share MY bias” school.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to see the news-gathering ability of NPR hampered by a cut in funding simply because commercial radio has all but abandoned news to the public stations. For many listeners across the U.S. it’s probably the only radio news they have access to.

But should the government be in the business of funding it? That’s certainly a debatable subject, but I’m afraid it’s a debate that — like most that are taking place in Washington these days — will be based on ideology and not what’s in the best interests of Americans.

DAVID BRODER REMEMBERED: One quick end note. I have to acknowledge the death of former Washington Post political columnist David Broder today. He was 81 and for years, he was one of the best political reporters in Our Nation’s Capital. He was known for his even-handedness and civility — as discussed above, a couple of endangered qualities among newspaper editorial pages. He appeared on “Meet the Press” 400 times, more than anyone else in history.

I usually have some kind of story for every one of these “appreciations” I do for people’s passings. But I really don’t have a David Broder story, except that Jayne and I once saw him on the Metro, probably on his way to work, during one of our visits to Washington, D.C. in the Nineties.

For all the folks who visit L.A. to sight Hollywood celebrities, we always had far better luck in D.C. catching famous people doing ordinary things. We spotted Stevie Wonder in a soul food restaurant and then-Secretary of Labor Robert Reich doing a power lunch at
a see-and-be-seen place called Duke Ziebert’s that’s no longer around.

And I’ll always be thankful I’ve got a wife who understood why it was a big deal to me to see Robert Reich in a restaurant.

About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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