Former NPR Reporter Denounces 'Canard' of Liberal Media Bias for Causing 'False Balance'

In addition to disparaging Brian Williams for offering a "candygram" to Barack Obama in prime time, PBS omnipresence Bill Moyers organized another one-sided left-wing discussion on the alleged conservative bias of the news media last Friday, picking up on Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne’s complaint that the media are giving too much time and weight to Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich on the Sotomayor nomination. Former NPR correspondent Brooke Gladstone, who now hosts the weekly show On The Media for WNYC radio (distributed nationally by NPR), denounced the "canard" of liberal media bias and how it causes "overbalance":

What I see is that there's a desperate need on the part of media all the time, and increasingly year after year, to respond to what they think are the concerns of the news consumer. And so, there's a tendency to bend over backwards to prove they aren't liberal. This is a canard that began with the Nixon administration, probably before, but really took off steam then. And they're continually in an acrobatic position, trying to overbalance, show what they think are both sides, a side that isn't being expressed by a mainstream media that is perceived to be liberal, or they believe it's perceived to be liberal.

I e-mailed Gladstone and asked her if she isn’t concerned that she’s reinforcing the idea that NPR is a liberal haven by coming on PBS and denouncing this "canard." She replied:

I have some concern but it is unrelated to the roughly ten percent of public radio's income that comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

My concern is about offering media analysis that is fair and having my meaning understood.

I would prefer not to be labeled but I accept that is an occupational hazard. I believe that in an effort to avoid the liberal label, many reporters tend to overcompensate.

They may offer more ink and airtime to the extreme right than to the extreme left. They may give equal time to both sides of an arguments even when the preponderance of factual evidence greatly favors one side over the other.

Reporters (though some dispute this) are people, too. Sometimes they opt to dodge bullets by reporting in ways that are more expedient than true.

For my part, I try to provide the most candid perspective I can. That way, viewers (or listeners) can decide for themselves whether to trust me or not.

Gladstone was very candid on PBS about denouncing "these nervous Nellies who are concerned about being perceived as liberals." Moyers paired her with professor Jay Rosen. (Earlier this year, Moyers paired Rosen with Glenn Greenwald in another left-wing una-logue.) She was also clear in agreeing with Dionne that Limbaugh and Gingrich shouldn’t be highlighted, since conservative Republicans are marginalizing themselves:

GLADSTONE: But if we are to believe the polls, and I guess that's a whole different show for you, it seems that the importance of Rush as a mover of opinion, not as a generator of audience, necessarily. But as a mover of opinion -- and Newt Gingrich is diminishing. Fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Republican.

So, you see this false balance being created in the news for the purposes of having something that generates a lot of heat without much light to talk about. And you see a medium, a class of experts. A political party. All in the process of marginalizing themselves in pursuit of generating some excitement on television.

BILL MOYERS: So, if you're right, this is happening without what Jay identified earlier. Very few progressive voices to the left of Obama are having a role in the national debate. So, what's happening that is bringing people around to challenge the Limbaughs and the Gingriches, when in fact those alternative voices are rarely heard?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a fascinating question. And I venture to say, that it's probably Obama. Obama is an enormously appealing character. And he has placed himself in front of the cameras everywhere. He's given tons of so-called exclusive interviews everywhere. He has made himself the best spokesman for his own moderate position. And the country likes it. And that's what the polls suggest. It seems quite simple, but that's the stand in for the entire other side of the debate. And the people to the left of him, you are right, we don't see them. And it would be useful to see more of them on television. But we do see them on the net.

JAY ROSEN: I think there's a very interesting dynamic here, which is that Obama makes a living by not being what the right wing says he is. And it was very powerful in the election, when he showed up at the debates. He didn't look anything like or sound anything like what the heated fantasies of the conservative wing had said. And simply by not being who Rush says he is, he ends up seeming way more trustworthy than perhaps he actually should be.

GLADSTONE: And makes Rush less credible.

ROSEN: And makes Rush less credible. But even though I agree with you, Brooke that the conservative base is kind of marginalizing itself. It isn't necessarily being marginalized by the news media.

GLADSTONE: That's for sure. I completely agree with you there.

ROSEN: So, let's marginalize them. If they're self-marginalized.

Gladstone also suggested the Democrats are also "nervous Nellies," not just the conservative-fearing press: "I honestly think that our Democratic Party is suffering under the same paranoid concerns that the press are. That this putatively liberal party may be too liberal."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis