Newsweek worried this week that “What’s Killing NPR” is declining to let its journalists deny (ludicrously) that there’s any liberal bias on its airwaves. Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep is now taking on the lead lobbyist’s role with an op-ed in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal with the headline “Liberal Bias at NPR?” Inskeep’s claiming the answer is “No.”
The pull-quote in the paper is “Surveys show that millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.” He also uses a GfK poll to argue "most [NPR] listeners consistently identify themselves as 'middle of the road' or 'conservative.'" The actual results from that poll: 28% conservative, 25% percent middle of the road, 37% percent liberal. Even NPR lovers accused Inskeep of using “fuzzy math” to fight the liberal-bias claim, like Jeff Bercovici at Forbes:
So, yes, it's accurate to say that 53 percent of NPR listeners - ie. "most" listeners - are either self-described conservatives of middle-of-the-roaders. But it's even more accurate to say that most listeners - 62 percent - are self-described liberals or middle-roaders.
A survey by the Pew Research Center conducted last year showed an even more marked lean to the left: 74 percent of NPR listeners described themselves as either liberal or moderate, and a full 81 percent described themselves as either Democrats or Independents. (Democrats were 41 percent of the sample, versus 14 percent Republicans.) That agreed with a study I wrote about earlier this week, which found NPR’s Twitter following to be left-of-center.
I don’t disagree with Inskeep’s overall conclusion that the average listener, whether liberal and or conservative, tunes into NPR for reasons other than ideology: “Most listeners understand that we’re all figuring out the world together, calmly and honestly, in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”
I’m a fan of “Morning Edition” and of NPR in general. I know, from many mornings spent listening to Inskeep, that he’s enough of a journalist to understand he’s guilty of sophistry here. To the extent that his purpose in citing the audience data was to create the politically convenient impression that NPR’s audience tilts rightward, he was being deceitful.
Noah Davis at the Business Insider wasn't that harsh on Inskeep, but also argued these poll numbers wouldn't match Inskeep's implication that these conservatives are fans of NPR newscasts:
The survey makes no distinction between member stations and NPR. A self-identified conservative living in a rural area might never hear This American Life, Morning Edition, or any of the other programs syndicated nationally -- he or she could listen to the station because it is the only source of local news around -- but he or she would be counted as a conservative listener in the Gfk MRI study.
So yes, the majority of NPR's listeners may be "'middle of the road' or 'conservative.'" But whether they are hearing stories produced for a national audience is another matter entirely.
Inskeep is denying there's evidence of liberal bias by citing audience research, and citing "conservatives' -- i.e. soldiers and rural folks, apparently -- that seem to be his fans he comes across in his travels:
I've met an incredible variety of listeners in my travels. The audience includes students, peace activists, and American soldiers I met in Iraq. They're among many people in the military who rely on NPR's international coverage. When I was NPR's Pentagon correspondent, I discovered that it's a prize beat, because on every base you meet people who already know who you are. Many other Americans are listening in places like Indiana, my home state, or Kentucky, where I first worked in public radio. Not much of the media pays attention to the middle of the country, but NPR and its local stations do. Many NPR stations have added news staff as local newspapers have declined.
Members of Congress listen too: A few months ago I was interviewing a Republican lawmaker who quoted an NPR story he'd heard that morning. And there are people like the woman I met at a Sarah Palin debate party in 2008, in rural western Virginia. She said she listened during long drives required by her job with a railroad.
If Inskeep truly thinks this is a plausible way to analyze on-air content -- and it's not -- then perhaps he'll agree that Fox News leans to the left: “Did you know 61% of the viewers of Fox describe themselves as middle-of-the-road or liberal?” Chris Wallace explained in 2009. “Given how much bigger the Fox audience is than the other Cable audiences, I’ll bet our 61% is bigger than CNN or MSNBC in total.”