How Public is NPR?

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by Jonathan Lawson

Last weekend, public radio managers and journalists from National Public Radio affiliates across the country met in Seattle for a pleasant discussion of the network's expansion into new markets via digital broadcast technology. The network is depended upon by many of its core listeners for daily in-depth news coverage which, they believe, is more free from corporate bias and more diverse than commercial radio and TV news.

NPR's current mission statement promises to "create a more informed public - one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures." How well is NPR delivering on these promises of diversity and depth, after a quarter century of broadcasting?

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting first addressed these questions in a 1993 study, which concluded that NPR's news programs failed, "in reporting, analysis and commentary, to reflect the diversity of the public." In their reliance on official government sources and right-wing think tanks, and their high percentages of white, male on-air commentators, NPR programs failed to do much better than such commercial network programs as Nightline.

Many a devoted public listener might object, "why pick on NPR? After all, they are better than the TV networks." It's true that it is not difficult to find admirable journalism at NPR, especially among local public affairs programming at affiliate stations. But precisely because NPR is observed to be "better than the commercial networks," it is too often given a pass by liberals and progressives. Allowing ourselves the luxury of implicitly trusting NPR's framing of important issues, it is easy for us to overlook the ways in which NPR is subservient to the same ideological forces that shape the production of news at CNN and ABC. NPR's reputation as "the most liberal" among mainstream news providers has important implications for its role in shaping public debate about important issues, and this justifies the close scrutiny of media analysts.

A small number of media watchdogs have devoted considerable resources to monitoring NPR's news programming for years. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has already been mentioned. Tara Weiss of the Hartford Courant recently questioned the network's acceptance of underwriting funds from the public-relations-savvy government of Kuwait, including repeated on-air promotion of the propaganda website www.kuwaitthanksamerica.org. Independent news analyst Ali Abunimah, a researcher at the University of Chicago, calls NPR "No Palestinians Radio." On his own website (www.abunimah.org), Abunimah vigilantly documents often subtle anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab biases in NPR's coverage of Middle East news.

NPR and Low Power FM Radio

Perhaps the most blatant recent example of NPR's hypocrisy with regard to its founding principles has been its involvement in ongoing disputes over the future of low-power FM legislation.

In a multi-year plan which came to fruition last year, the Federal Communications Commission took a small but important step towards democratization of the radio airwaves by deciding to grant licenses to a number of low-power FM (LPFM) stations nationwide. These licenses were conceived as a means to re-introduce some diversity into FM radio programming, which has in recent decades become increasingly monopolized by a small number of commercial broadcasting networks and media conglomerates, with locally-produced programming diminishing or completely disappearing in many areas. Public comments on the plan, solicited in 1998 and 1999, arrived in record-setting numbers, and were overwhelmingly in favor of LPFM.

Corporate broadcasters, however, had a different idea. Instinctively threatened by any use of the public airwaves by small, community-based, noncommercial radio stations, corporate broadcast interests sprang into action through their public policy mouthpiece, the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB is a notorious opponent of community-based or noncommercial broadcasting, and is highly intolerant of dissenters in its midst. In this case, the NAB launched a major public relations and lobbying campaign designed to portray LPFM as a terrible threat to the public, and to convince Congress to legislatively kill the FCC's decision to license these stations. The NAB argued--disingenuously, in the opinion of many critics--that low power FM stations would somehow interfere with the higher-wattage signals of existing broadcasters. They even distributed to legislators misleading, studio-produced "demonstration" recordings claiming to prove this strangely inverted claim. For more information on the NAB's highly deceptive lobbying campaign and the issues it raised, visit the website of the Prometheus Radio Project (prometheus.tao.ca).

In accordance with its stated goal to promote diversity in broadcasting, NPR should have taken the rare step of making a public stand in support of the FCC's proposal to grant LPFM licenses. LPFM advocates would probably have been a little disappointed - though not surprised - if the network had simply chosen to remain silent on the issue, in the interest of not "making waves" with Congress, which has slashed its funding ruthlessly in recent years. Instead, NPR opted to join the NAB in its high-profile crusade against broadcast diversity. In the face of this monumental joint NAB/NPR lobbying effort, the informed testimony of FCC representatives and low-power FM advocates failed to sway the Congress, who finally passed the ironically titled "Broadcast Preservation Act," directing the FCC to grant only a tiny number of LPFM licenses, about 20% of the originally planned allocation, during an arbitrarily-defined evaluation period.

NPR's cooperation with the NAB lobbying effort has played a crucial role in steering the congressional discussion of LPFM legislation. According to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild, "all indications are that if NPR would lower its voice on this, the congressional threat would go away." Like the network's core listeners, many congressional Democrats likely consider NPR to represent the most liberal perspectives within acceptable public policy debate. NPR's rare public stand on a national issue staked out "safe" ground for liberal-minded Democrats, and by extension, made taking a stand further to the left appear more radical and thus less politically attractive.

This crucial point bears repeating. Because of its public perception as being "liberal," NPR wields extraordinary power in shaping public debate over the issues it covers--or doesn't cover. Through its role as the leftmost boundary of the respectable national media, it serves to discredit all progressive perspectives seen as being further to the left than liberal NPR.

NPR's explanations for its opposition to low-power FM deserve scrutiny, and should give pause to NPR supporters who share what they understand to be the network's values regarding diversity and democracy.

Michael Brasher, the manager of NPR station KANW, Albuquerque, has made public statements in support of LPFM licensing; his opposition suggests that NPR president Kevin Klose may be a renegade by opposing LPFM when NPR affiliates were not asked what their attitude was about LPFM and what they thought the NPR leadership (that supposedly represents them) should say about LPFM. Brasher said it plainly: "I really doubt that the position taken by [NPR upper management] represents the true feelings of the men and women who work in National Public Radio and in our stations."

NPR stations across the country currently operate thousands of low-power FM stations as "translators," intended to help a station cover areas of signal blackout within its basic geographical broadcast range. In practice, these transmitters usually help extend the range of a station across broader areas, in the process hoarding low-power licenses which could be used by other organizations. In Washington State, NPR affiliates have often sought to license transator stations in areas already covered by other NPR stations. Tacoma affiliate KPLU supplements its primary 100,000 watt signal with seven low-power translators scattered around the Puget Sound, occupying different frequencies. Seattle's KUOW also broadcasts at 100,000 watts, but is rumored to have also applied for low-power frequencies to be used as translator sites outside of Seattle..

This more-or-less standard procedure begins to look more than a bit hypocritical when held up alongside NPR's straight-faced assertion, in a 1998 petition submitted to the FCC, that "it is neither self-evident nor established" that licensing community low-power FM stations would give rise to "diversity of media voices" (Public Broadcasting Report, 8 May 98). In the same petition NPR claimed to support "fostering a diversity of broadcast voices." Of course, the only way to guarantee that LPFM will NOT foster diversity is to hoard LPFM licenses as translators--exactly what NPR affiliates continue to do.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey