Media

How Public Is Public Radio?

A new FAIR study of NPR's guest list shows that it relies on the same elite sources that dominate mainstream news.
When National Public Radio was launched in 1971, it promised to be an alternative to commercial media that would "promote personal growth rather than corporate gain" and "speak with many voices, many dialects."

In 1993, when FAIR published a study of NPR's guest list that challenged the network's alternative credentials, incoming NPR president Delano Lewis was still boasting about being a place where the unheard get heard: "Our job is to be a public radio station. So therefore the alternative points of view, the various viewpoints, should be aired."

Today, current NPR president Kevin Klose insists that diversity and inclusivity are among NPR's top priorities: "All of us believe our goal is to serve the entire democracy, the entire country."

NPR, which now reaches 22 million listeners weekly on 750 affiliated stations, does frequently provide more than the nine-second-soundbite culture of mainstream news broadcasts. But is the public really heard on public radio? And is NPR truly an alternative to its commercial competition? A new FAIR study of NPR's guest list shows the radio service relies on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public.

FAIR's study recorded every on-air source quoted in June 2003 on four National Public Radio news shows: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday and Week-end Edition Sunday. Each source was classified by occupation, gender, nationality and partisan affiliation. Altogether, the study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804 stories.

In addition to studying NPR's general news sources, FAIR looked at the think tanks NPR relies on most frequently, and at its list of regular commentators. To ensure a substantial sample of these subsets, we looked at four months of think tank sources and commentators on the same four shows.

Elite sources dominated NPR's guest-list. These sources -- including government officials, professional experts and corporate representatives -- accounted for 64 percent of all sources.

Current and former government officials constituted the largest group of elite voices, accounting for 28 percent of overall sources, an increase of 2 percentage points over 1993. Current and former military sources (a subset of governmental sources) were 3 percent of total sources.

Professional experts -- including those from academia, journalism, think tanks, legal, medical and other professions -- were the second largest elite group, accounting for 26 percent of all sources. Corporate representatives accounted for 6 percent of total sources.

Journalists by themselves accounted for 7 percent of all NPR sources. For a public radio service intended to provide an independent alternative to corporate-owned and commercially driven mainstream media, NPR is surprisingly reliant on mainstream journalists. At least 83 percent of journalists appearing on NPR in June 2003 were employed by commercial U.S. media outlets, many at outlets famous for influencing newsroom agendas throughout the country (16 from the New York Times alone, and another seven from the Washington Post). Only five sources came from independent news outlets like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the National Catholic Reporter.

The remainder of elite sources was distributed among religious leaders (2 percent) and political professionals, including campaign staff and consultants (1 percent).

Though elite sources made up a majority of sources, the study actually found a substantial increase in the number of non-elite sources featured. Workers, students, the general public, and representatives of organized citizen and public interest groups accounted for 31 percent of all sources, compared to the 17 percent found in 1993.

The increase comes largely in the general public category. These are "people in the street" whose occupations are not identified and who tend to be quoted more briefly than other sources -- often in one-sentence soundbites. More than a third (37 percent) of general public sources were not even identified by name -- appearing in show transcripts as "unidentified woman No. 2" and the like. General public sources accounted for 21 percent of NPR sources.

Spokespeople for public interest groups -- generally articulate sources espousing a particular point of view -- accounted for 7 percent of total sources, the same proportion found in 1993. Though not a large proportion of NPR's sources, public interest voices were still about twice as common on NPR as on commercial network news, according to a FAIR study published in 2002 that found that such sources made up only 3 percent of voices on network news shows.

Public interest voices on NPR reflected a wide range of opinion, from conservative groups like the National Right to Life Committee and Texas Eagle Forum to progressive groups like MoveOn.org and Code Pink. Types of organizations represented included political organizations, charitable foundations, public education groups and human rights and civil liberties advocates. Eighty-seven percent of public interest sources appeared in domestic policy stories.

Sources identified as workers on NPR programming in June accounted for 2.3 percent of overall sources and 1.8 percent of U.S. sources. But spokespersons for organized labor were almost invisible, numbering just six sources, or 0.3 percent of the total. Corporate representatives (6 percent) appeared 23 times more often than labor representatives.

Women were dramatically underrepresented on NPR in 1993 (19 percent of all sources), and they remain so today (21 percent). And they were even less likely to appear on NPR in stories as experts -- just 15 percent of all professionals were women -- or in stories discussing political issues, where only 18 percent of sources were women.

Women were particularly scarce in stories about Iraq, making up just 13 percent of sources. Nearly half of these women, 47 percent, were general public sources -- that is, they appeared as non-expert "people in the street" -- as compared to 22 percent of male sources in Iraq stories. Thirty-three percent of female sources commenting in Iraq stories appeared as professionals or experts, while 66 percent of male Iraq sources appeared in such capacities.

Female sources lagged markedly behind men in most occupation categories. Women accounted for 17 percent of journalistic sources, 12 percent of corporate sources and 12 percent of government officials. The only category where females appeared more often than males was among the small sample of students (12 of 23); women and men were equally cited as families of military personnel.

Six women tied for most often quoted, with three appearances each. Of these, four were from government: National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative Manhattan Institute and University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman rounded out the list of women who appeared most frequently on NPR.

It was not feasible to do an ethnic breakdown of more than 2,000 radio sources, but an examination of NPR's commentators (see sidebar) suggests that the network may have made more progress in racial inclusion than in gender balance since 1993.

That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early '70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that "all funds for public broadcasting be cut," through House Speaker Newt Gingrich's similar threats in the mid-'90s, the notion that NPR leans left still endures.

News of the April launch of Air America, a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already existed. "I have three letters for you, NPR. . . . I mean, there is liberal radio," remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan on NBC's Chris Matthews Show (4/4/04.) A few days earlier (4/1/04), conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, "The liberals have many outlets," naming NPR prominently among them.

Nor is this belief confined to the right: CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer seemed to repeat it as a given while questioning a liberal guest: "What about this notion that the conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?"

Despite the commonness of such claims, little evidence has ever been presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR's latest study gives it no support. Looking at partisan sources -- including government officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants -- Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at the time of the 2003 study.

Partisans from outside the two major parties were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian Party representatives who appeared in a single story on Morning Edition.

Republicans not only had a substantial partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR's most popular sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance. George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances, followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.

Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell, all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white male government officials.

Read NPR's response to FAIR's study href="http://www.fair.org/press-releases/npr-study-response.html">here.
Steve Rendell and Daniel Butterworth write for Extra!.
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