NPR Anchors Line Up to Deny Bias; One Says the Charge Insults NPR-Listening Conservatives as 'Stupid'

Newsweek’s Howard Kurtz suggests “What’s Killing NPR” is its failure to strike back at conservative charges of liberal bias: “Staffers flown in for a recent meeting in Washington groaned when executives said it would be too risky for them to aggressively defend NPR, and that perhaps they should get media training for Joyce Slocum, who took over on an interim basis after the firing of CEO Vivian Schiller.”

Kurtz quotes a series of angry NPR anchors who think they are the essence of fairness and balance. Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep insisted “I actually get accused of being a conservative as often as I get accused of being a liberal.” Kurtz asserted in an NPR survey last year, 37 percent of listeners described themselves as liberal or very liberal, 25 percent as middle of the road, and 28 percent as conservative or very conservative—a split he said was very much on Inskeep’s mind. “If you’re saying we’re a liberal propaganda front,” he says, “you’re insulting the intelligence of millions and millions of conservatives who listen to us every day. You are saying they’re stupid.”

MSNBC also has a decent chunk of audience members who identify as conservatives – nearly every political news/talk show in America would have a decent chunk of conservative audience members. That’s no way to measure bias. Besides, I would tell pollsters I listen to NPR every day – and I think it’s thoroughly, intensely biased. Some of us listen precisely to hear how liberal or radical it gets. The apparent source for all this is a Mediamark survey touted in an April 2010 blog post, but that piece does not say when the survey was done.

Kurtz omitted what NPR’s own ombudsman Alicia Shepard acknowledged in 2009 about NPR’s surveys and bias:

The Ombudsman's office gets deluged with emails, comments, phone calls, and the perception here — among a staffer, an intern and me — is that the majority of them are critical of NPR for being too "mainstream" or for being too conservative. [That sounds like the Inskeep defense.]

But that doesn't gibe with recent NPR-commissioned scientific polling on how its audience views the coverage. A June 30 report says that 50 percent of the total audience sees NPR's news coverage as balanced; while more than 40 percent see NPR as liberal and only 4 percent thought it had a conservative slant.

Bizarrely, Shepard reported that only two percent of self-identified “very liberal” survey respondents thought NPR was conservative, but 15 percent of “very conservative” respondents said it was. (I would challenge the intelligence of someone who says they’re “very conservative” and thinks NPR is “conservative.”) One would assume this survey asked if they listened to NPR, not that they listened to NPR news programming. So conservatives could listen to an NPR station daily to hear classical or jazz music as well.

Kurtz quoted a series of outraged NPR journalists who dismiss conservative charges of bias:

“Our problems don’t have much to do with what we do, but with the people who manage what we do,” says Robert Siegel, co-host of All Things Considered. “I don’t think we’re antagonists to Fox the way MSNBC is. We certainly seem to disappoint a lot of doctrinaire liberals who expect different programming from us.”

Scott Simon, who hosts Weekend Edition Saturday, says that “every NPR journalist I know makes a real attempt to be fair and balanced. That’s why Schiller’s remarks were so repugnant to me … Ron Schiller seemed to be expressing an almost perfect caricature of a smug, elitist, toadying viewpoint.” 

Simon somehow thinks it's not smugly liberal for him to seek out Christopher Hitchens to trash Mother Teresa when she died. But NPR celebrated radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly as an "icon" to nuns. Ira Glass of the show This American Life seems the angriest that NPR's not whacking back at conservatives:

“Public radio is being hit with a barrage of criticism that it’s left-wing media–biased, reprehensible—and we’re doing nothing to stand up for our brand,” he tells NEWSWEEK. “They’re not responding like a multimedia organization that’s actually growing and superpopular.” 

Glass's show celebrates eight-year-old transgenders -- but who's saying that's edgy and progressive?

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