Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road

I'm still wondering what is supposed to be "liberal," let alone "left," about NPR's news programming. When an article entitled "What the right means when it calls NPR 'liberal,'" by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, appeared at last Friday, I hoped against hope that it would tell me something.

But of course it didn't. The piece was a shameless exercise in distraction, and blatantly dishonest in various ways.
For one, when we described the right-wing media machine as NPR’s "long-time nemesis," it was not to suggest that somehow public radio is its left-wing opposite. When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn't left; it's independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line. We’ve heard no NPR reporter -- not a one -- advocating on the air for more government spending (or less), for the right of abortion (or against it), for or against gay marriage, or for or against either political party, especially compared to what we hear from Fox News and talk radio on all of these issues and more.
Now, I don't listen to NPR News these days any more than I can help; their coverage in the wake of the September 11 attacks was the final straw for me. But I know from experience that what Moyers and Winship wrote here wasn't true in the past, and thanks to FAIR and other media watchers I know it isn't true now.

NPR has long been a booster of nuclear power, for example, loading its programs with advocates and claiming that "environmentalists" have come around to support it. The year 2007 "saw an accident at the largest power plant in the world—in Japan (NPR's All Things Considered, 7/19/07)—which was the subject of three additional NPR stories--yet, even in this coverage, no experts critical of nuclear power were cited." NPR also downplays "its own financial links to the industry," claiming "that the corporate "underwriting" money it receives has no bearing on its coverage--a defense that would seem to undercut the rationale for NPR's existence as a noncommercial broadcaster.)"

NPR and PBS are both very Wall-Street friendly. For example, in 2010 NPR trumpeted Goldman Sachs' doubled earnings in the first quarter, "
a bit of good news, a very large bit of good news, because four days ago the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Goldman Sachs for fraud." On PBS's Charlie Rose, Newsweek's Evan Thomas "went so far as to compare proceedings against them to 'a Stalinist show trial'".

In 2008,
While the Iraqi government continued its large-scale military assault in Basra, the NPR reporter’s voice from Iraq was unequivocal on the morning of March 27: "There is no doubt that this operation needed to happen."
But maybe Moyers and Winship don't think that endorsing military action is advocacy; or maybe they just weren't listening that day.

Bias shows itself in other ways than overt advocacy, of course. FAIR has repeatedly documented NPR's and PBS's overrepresentation of elite sources: "These sources—including government officials, professional experts and corporate representatives—accounted for 64 percent of all sources." Between FAIR's first survey in 1993 and its successor in 2004, NPR increased its number of "public" sources from 17 to 31 percent, largely of "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 (Extra!, 5–6/02) that found that such sources made up only 3 percent of voices on network news shows.
There was a mild scandal in March 2010, when an All Things Considered obituary of the historian Howard Zinn included a rant by far-right convert David Horowitz, who said, "There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn’s intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect." The inclusion of Horowitz was meant to "balance" eulogies by Noam Chomsky and Julian Bond. (One of the very few times Chomsky has ever appeared on NPR, as it happens.) When NPR did an obituary of William F. Buckley Jr., however, they felt no need for such balance: "Upon his death in February 2008, NPR aired six segments commemorating him, none of which included a less than laudatory guest." NPR ombud Alicia Shepard responded to protests by agreeing "that Horowitz’s 'harsh comments' were 'not appropriate.' But at the same time, she insisted: 'Obituaries are news stories that place a person in time and history—not tributes. For this reason, Zinn’s obituary did need to mention that he was controversial and that some historians were dismissive of his work.'" Shepard didn't address the fact that NPR felt no such need for context where controversial right-wingers are concerned.

Contrary to the right-wing canard that NPR stands for National Palestinian Radio, NPR has shown a clear bias against Palestinians, notoriously in stories where Palestinian lives don't count for as much as Israeli lives. NPR also felt the need for "balance" in a 1993 story for Fresh Air about reporter Robert I. Friedman's book on Israeli settlers. The story was completed and promoted but never aired:
Fresh Air executive producer and host Terry Gross said, "It's not that [Friedman's] political views were too extreme to air, but that he colored a couple of things in extreme ways." Gross said Fresh Air "needed a balance" to "statements like 'settling the Occupied Territories is a lunatic endeavor' and 'most settlers see Arabs as less than human.'... At some point you feel, maybe it's appropriate to call up a settler and have them express that in their own words, or have them take issue with it." But Gross noted that the settler she spoke to in a pre-interview "was very anti-Arab," adding that they didn't broadcast that interview because the settler was "out of focus."
And so on. Moyers and Winship are disingenous in claiming that "When it comes to covering and analyzing the news, the reverse of right isn't left; it's independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line." Independent reporting that toes neither party nor ideological line might be the reverse of biased reporting; but in any case, it's clear that NPR's reporting is highly conscious of party and ideological lines -- hence its need for bogus "balance." But even if its reporters and editors fully believe that they have no bias, party, or ideology -- and I'm sure they do -- that doesn't mean they're right. Fox News presents itself as "fair and balanced," after all, and I'm sure its staff fully believe that they are independent reporters who toe no party nor ideological line, but let the facts fall where they may.

Moyers and Winship also make things too easy for themselves by contrasting NPR with Fox News. Public broadcasting wasn't instituted to provide an alternative to Fox News, which didn't exist in those days: it was supposed to be an alternative to commercial, corporate broadcasting such as CBS, NBC and ABC. But the right also considers the big three networks to be liberal if not left-leaning media, at least for its propaganda purposes. When NPR addressed such accusations against itself in 2002, they "balanced" right-wing critics not with left-wing critics, but with "two media veterans-- former Time magazine editor and columnist Jack White and former CBS News producer and executive Ed Fouhy-- who were introduced with the observation that 'most journalists reject the idea that their reporting is biased in any direction.'" Fancy that!

"We may have been a bit fulsome in our praise" of public broadcasting, Moyers and Winship concede.
Americans need more and sustained reporting on what the journalist William Greider calls "the hard questions of governance" -- those questions of how and why some interests are allowed to dominate the government’s decision-making while others are excluded. Who gets the money and who has to pay? Who must be heard on this question and who can be safely ignored? None execute this kind of reporting better than Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on "Democracy Now," which, while carried by many public radio and television stations, is not distributed nationally by either NPR or PBS. Public media -- radio and television -- too rarely challenge the dictum: "News is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity."
Their praise for Democracy Now! is welcome, but it's too little too late, and again the authors retreat into platitudes.
For all that it provides -- but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting -- we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear. Short of that we’ll need the courage, as one of our journalistic heroes, the late George Seldes, wrote, "to tell the truth and run."
This simply begs the question whether public broadcasting does constitute a true journalistic alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting. PBS and NPR's ideological biases, to say nothing of their dependence on corporate funding, keep them too close to "commercial and partisan broadcasting" for comfort.

I read several pages of the comments on Moyers and Winship's story, curious to see if right-wing commenters would provide some actual evidence of liberal, anti-Israel, anti-business bias on NPR's part. Nada. But again, such people consider the corporate-owned commercial media to be left-wing, which would also be refuted easily if they bothered to make a case. Moyers and Winship don't even bother to address criticism of NPR from the left, mentioning only that its "fact-driven reporting" explains why "some liberals and Democrats also become irate with NPR."

One commenter wrote, "My hardcore leftist friends deride it as 'National Pentagon Radio' because it's insufficiently Marxist." Maybe there are "hardcore leftists" out there who feel that way, but as noted above, NPR's fawning complicity with the Pentagon is a better reason for the title.

As Noam Chomsky has often said, there is a sense in which the corporate media and PBS/NPR are "liberal media": they declare their position to be as "liberal" as it's possible to be. Anything farther is leftist "extremism," which wouldn't be worth addressing even if it existed. This defines the limits of debate in American media, and the "liberal" media are complacently proud of their adversary status, their willingness to speak truth to power, without fear or favor.