Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NPR: Where's the bias?

Part of our regular radio diet is On the Media, a public radio program produced by WNYC that examines various aspects of the mass media. It's valuable for people who are interested in the news, how the news gets to them, and what forces are at work influencing the content we hear.

Last week's program examined the relentless right-wing claims that National Public Radio has a liberal bias. I don't think it does, and I think the evidence shows that I'm right, but you can certainly listen to the podcast and make your own decision.


I thought it was ironic when I was listening to All Things Considered just yesterday, the day after hearing "On the Media" report on claims of NPR liberal bias, and I heard what struck me as a clear illustration of the opposite of liberal bias.

The story was about President Obama announcing at a campaign stop in Ohio that his administration had filed another unfair trade complaint against China. It was a dialogue between Audie Cornish in the studio and Scott Horsley on the road with the campaign, and at about 2:00 into the story the following exchange occurs:

CORNISH: Now, Mitt Romney has dismissed the president's latest enforcement action as too little, too late. And, I mean, are these the first enforcement actions the White House has taken against China?
HORSLEY: No. The White House boasted it has actually filed trade cases against China at more than twice the rate of the Bush administration.

 The question asked by Cornish was a factual question of how many trade complaints have been filed by the Obama administration. The true answer appears to be that the Obama administration has filed complaints at twice the rate of the Bush administration,  and after providing a one-word factual answer Horsley replies with a comment of "boasts" by the Obama campaign.

Nothing would have been lost in the report if Horsley's answer had been, "No, the Obama administration has actually filed trade cases against China at more than twice the rate of the Bush administration." That would have been a factual and complete answer to a factual question.

By adding the phrase, "the White House boasted . . ." to his answer, Scott Horsley implicitly indicated that the answer was one of opinion or political posturing, rather than one of fact. By doing this, and by characterizing the statement as a boast, Horsley's answer undermined the credibility of the Obama administration's statement and gave President Obama's opponents reason to reject the answer, since it was not a factual statement but merely a campaign boast.

There are many situations in which the facts are more favorable to one side of a debate or the other, but the media, especially NPR and other media aiming for credibility and impartiality, still have the obligation to report the facts.

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