Ira Glass, Brooke Gladstone

What do you say to negative hyperbole about bias? Glass (left, at PRPD) wants to confront it. Gladstone sees a fair defense.

‘We don’t have to fear discussion’

Glass urges stronger rebuttal of constant ‘liberal bias’ charges

Your comments, pleaseLike many of his public radio colleagues, This American Life host Ira Glass has been alarmed by the partisan hammering NPR has suffered for supposed liberal bias.

Unlike many of those colleagues, the producer/star of This American Life and role model for an army of young audio artists can pretty much say what he thinks, or at least proceed as if he can. And when he shoots his mouth off, people beyond public radio and his fan base pay attention.

Before the Juan Williams rumpus last fall, Glass urged public radio insiders to re-imagine their approach to fact-based journalism, calling for public radio to do more to counterbalance the rise of combative opinion personalities on cable news channels. Now, with NPR and all of public radio under attack, he’s urging pubcasters to address complaints about liberal bias head-on and mount a stronger defense of its news standards.

“We’re at a stage as an industry that we don’t have to fear a discussion of the product,” he said. “It’s the best in the country, it grows audience every year, and every day we’re covering things better than any other broadcast outlet. There’s nothing to fear from looking at the quality of the product.”

Defending NPR’s fairness is not a topic that the system’s top lobbyist wants to take up. “I’m not interested in having a conversation like that,” says Patrick Butler, head of the Public Media Association, which is jointly repping public TV and radio.  “I’m trying to accentuate the positive,” Butler said in an interview with Current. “I think we’ve got a very strong case to make for public broadcasting on both the television and radio side, and that’s what I intend to concentrate on,” Butler said. NPR and other radio groups are free to lobby on issues of special interest to radio, he said.

Criticism of bias in public broadcasting — from the left and the right — isn’t new. It spikes whenever Congress debates federal aid to the field, or a PBS documentary hits a social-conservative hot button or scathes a special-interest group, going way back to Morton Silverstein’s 1970 expose, “Banks and the Poor.”

But since the dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams last October, the barrage has been aimed squarely at NPR, which produces the most-listened-to radio newsmagazines in the country.

The embarrassments that converted NPR from a news organization into a partisan wedge issue were blunders by the network’s top executives, not instances of biased news reporting, but the partisan attacks have aimed to trash the newsroom’s reputation as well.

It’s not as if pubcasters haven’t responded to complaints of bias. Both NPR and PBS employ ombudsmen to endorse or deflect audience reactions to its programming, including allegations of bias.

“To me, this is just a frustrating discussion,” said NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard. “If you like NPR, you don’t think it’s liberal; if you don’t like it, then you think it is liberally biased. To me, it’s a question of getting the facts straight, being educated about the news of the day, and hearing from a lot of different voices.”

Local pubcasters also hear directly from listeners about bias, and satisfying those callers can be difficult. “You can’t deny people’s perceptions,” said Helen Barrington, p.d. of WFCR and WNNZ in Amherst, Mass. “All you can do is to provide information to try to counter the perception with facts in a very positive way.”

Complaints also come in from listeners objecting to shows that aren’t produced by NPR journalists — Garrison Keillor’s jokes about Fox News, for example, or parodies of conservative politicians on the quiz show Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!

“With some people, the perception of liberalism is so pervasive and so ingrained that you’re not going to make inroads, no matter what you say,” Barrington said.

Militant advocate for fact-based reporting

Glass first spoke up about public radio’s news values last September, in a speech at the Public Radio Program Directors conference in Denver. He called for the field to dispel misinformation spread by Glenn Beck of Fox News and other opinion personalities.

“I believe that we need to be more militant in our defense of a fact-based journalism view of the world,” he said. “We need to do it in a way that’s more persuasive and I think that that requires us to invent new kinds of shows, new ways to reach audiences, a new aesthetic for our journalism.” Glass provided examples of his desired approach, which he described as more conversational and opinionated, yet “utterly fair.”

His speech capped a conference in which pubradio insiders strategized about how to expand and diversify their audience, but one month later the Juan Williams affair put NPR on the defensive.

Glass has been frustrated by how the field has responded to attacks from Fox News and conservatives in Congress. In February, he told a Boston Globe reporter that he was disappointed by the “vanilla ad campaign” mounted to preserve public broadcasting’s federal aid in Congress because it didn’t directly address the core complaint of the field’s partisan critics. If Republicans “want to have a discussion about the content we make, let’s have that discussion,” Glass told the Globe.

Not discussing partisan bias complaints with policymakers was a “super-smart” strategic decision by public broadcasters who designed the 170 Million Americans campaign, Glass told Current recently, but he dislikes hearing wild accusations of political bias that go unanswered.

Fox host Bill O’Reilly’s wordbomb describing NPR as a “totalitarian outfit functioning as an arm of the far left“ — tossed at NPR after it fired Williams — is typical of the incendiary rhetoric that isn’t effectively challenged, Glass said. He fears that the leftie labels slapped on NPR by O’Reilly and right-wing partisans have damaged its reputation.

Glass’s lament in the Boston Globe struck a chord with the people at On the Media, the weekly series produced by New York’s WNYC and distributed by NPR.

Over three consecutive weeks, OTM tried to assess whether public radio’s programs lean to the left. They talked to listeners and researchers and opened up an online dialogue to discover that no matter how many ways you look at media bias, in the end, whether people detect it or not depends as much on their attitudes as on the way a journalist reports the news.

“It’s not our job as a show to fight back ... or to defend public radio,” co-host and managing editor Brooke Gladstone told Current, “but we felt we could look into the issue to see what data were out there and, and, if possible, to come to any conclusions.”

Mission nearly impossible

Glass went on OTM’s March 11 edition, which covered the fallout from the NPR sting staged by hidden-camera specialist James O’Keefe, and challenged OTM to examine whether public radio has a liberal bias as its conservative critics allege: “You are the ones best positioned of everyone in the country, in the public radio system, in the world, to do this mission,” Glass said. “And I hand it to you. It’s an urgent mission and it needs to be done, and done beautifully.”

The hand-off was as flawless as any on Mission Impossible.

Gladstone interviewed Daniel Hallin, communications professor at the University of California in San Diego, about shifting notions of neutrality in journalism and looked at two different content analyses — from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and from a team of economics professors, Tim Groseclose from the University of California Los Angeles and Jeff Milyo of the University of Missouri. Co-host Bob Garfield interrogated James O’Keefe.

OTM cited two studies by FAIR, a media watchdog for the left, which found that NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered tilted right in their choice of partisan news sources. The majority of guests from political parties who appeared on the shows in 1993, when Democrats held the White House and Congress, and in 2004, when Republicans controlled both branches, were Republicans, according to FAIR’s counts.

The study by Groseclose and Milyo, both academics who lean to the right, examined think-tank guests who appeared on mainstream news outlets in 2004. It found that NPR has relied on left-leaning sources no more than Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report and less often than the Washington Post or the New York Times. PBS NewsHour was the least biased news source of 20 examined in the study.

Gladstone also tapped Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, who re-examined a content analysis of news organizations during President Obama’s first 100 days in office and a story-selection study comparing NPR News topics to those discussed on radio headline-news services and talk radio.

Neither study found evidence of bias. NPR’s coverage of President Obama was more neutral than that of other mainstream outlets, and it spent far less time chasing hot-button issues than talk radio did.

“[W]hat you basically see in terms of story selection is that NPR is more focused on international affairs, they’re more focused on explanatory sorts of coverage,” Rosenstiel said on the March 25 edition of OTM. “There’s lots of examples in the data here of spending more time on stories about things like Afghanistan and less time than some other parts of the media, particularly the more commentary or ideological components of the media, on divisive issues like health-care reform or even the economy.”

Gladstone pressed Rosenstiel on the question of whether NPR is biased, putting it to him three times. He finally said this: “Bias, in the end, is often a matter of whether things are phrased in ways that I agree with or disagree with. In the end, you’re not gonna persuade anyone with data.”

Enough with the navel-gazing

In segments aired on two OTM programs, Gladstone also talked with conservative listeners who responded to Glass’s challenge to find and discuss examples of liberal bias in news programs. “I wanted to have a clear conversation with people of good faith, who were coming into it without anything but their personal reactions,” Gladstone told Current.

Sam Negus, an evangelical Christian and libertarian who wrote to Glass, got the most airtime. In his first appearance, Negus laid out his objections to the Diane Rehm Show’s recent coverage of the labor dispute in Wisconsin and his offense at a Fresh Air interview two years ago with a guest who didn’t believe in the literal resurrection of Christ.

Negus agreed to keep a diary of his public radio listening experience for a week, and he returned to discuss it with Gladstone. He pointed to the intro of a Morning Edition segment by Mara Liasson that contrasted immigration policies of Arizona and Utah. The piece, which focused on Utah’s less-exclusionary policies, didn’t take into account the views of Arizonans who support the state’s stance on undocumented immigrants, he said, acknowledging that his reaction was triggered largely by the tone and framing of the story.

Another listener who kept a diary, Kevin Putt, objected to an All Things Considered segment on a proposed tax holiday for companies that build manufacturing plants in the United States. He felt that a follow-up question posed by co-host Michele Norris — “Can this country afford it right now?” — presumed that a corporate tax break is a “bad policy idea,” he said, and he associates that presumption with a liberal viewpoint.

After an exchange with Gladstone about a journalist’s role to challenge their source with strong follow-up questions, Putt added: “I think it’s good reporting. I’m a fan, so it’s, it’s not like when I hear it, it turns me off. It just comes with the territory.”

Gladstone and Glass came away from the bias hunt with different reactions.

“When I walked away from this evidence, my feeling was that everybody should just calm down,” Gladstone said. “Many of our listeners felt we spent an inordinate amount of time talking to conservatives and Republicans, but given that liberal bias was the charge we were addressing, that’s where I needed to spend more time.”

She is ready to move on to other media topics. “In a time when there’s so much going on in the world, we could be accused of an astonishing amount of navel-gazing” to continue covering public radio’s troubles. “We’re going to start paying attention to the rest of the world again.”

Glass came away with a new understanding about perceptions of bias. “I feel like I can hear things on the radio and I know that the people who wrote to me are wincing,” he said. “That is going to make me a better editor. I am way more sensitized to how they are hearing it, and as an editor I know it’s remarkably easy to fix.”

Public broadcasting still needs “a good crisis-management campaign,” he said, one in which its spokespeople and surrogates appear on talk shows and stick to well-crafted, strategic message points. “Imagine what CBS or any other news organization would do,” Glass said. “Public radio managers, especially the ones who built this system out of nothing, are clearly capable of this.”

The constant barrage of criticism of public radio is going to erode the NPR brand and the trust that’s built up for it among millions of listeners, he said. “This is an attack on what we’ve built, all of our stations and what we all do as journalists every day. . . . We need to respond like any business would respond and defend ourselves.”

Ira Glass photo by Karen Everhart.
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Copyright 2011 American University

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