Who is the Fairest of Them All?

NPR’s last president was forced out after James O’Keefe caught one of its fundraisers saying a few bad things about the Tea Party, and after the noise machine put them through the wringer when they finally canned Juan Williams for saying offensive things on Fox News. Now, the board has appointed a new hellraiser to run the place: Gary Knell, the former head of Sesame Street. And here’s his new agenda:

Mr. Knell indicated on Sunday that he would try to reorient conversations about NPR away from politics and instead toward its journalism, citing “fairness” as the most important trait.

The NPR board fundamentally doesn’t get it if they think a new leader with this focus will quiet their sworn enemies on the right. This kind of thinking just provides Fox and friends a platform to nit-pick NPR to death: at the macro level, by counting the number of “liberal” vs “conservative” stories are aired on their broadcasts, and, at the micro level, grousing every time a perfect balance of liberals and conservatives aren’t quoted in a story. Here’s Jay Rosen’s take on NPR being threatened by the perception that its programming is liberal:

Can you be “threatened” by a “perception?” I guess maybe you can. But if you can, then I would say that NPR is equally threatened by 1.) the perception that it can be rolled or intimidated, especially after forcing its last CEO to resign in part because right wing trickster James O’Keefe pulled a culture war stunt that worked, and 2.) the perception that it’s increasingly a he said, she said, “safety first” news organization that tends to quote both sides and leave it there.

Is NPR looking to keep the people who listen and support it interested and informed, or is it out to appease Fox News? I don’t see how they can accomplish both of those goals.

40 replies
  1. 1
    greennotGreen says:

    I’ve pretty much given up listening to NPR because the formerly great network has adopted the he said/she said format. They used to be so good. It’s not that they’re so bad now; it’s the disappointment in how far they’ve fallen.

  2. 2
    mzrad says:

    I heard a story the other day that was essentially a recap of a television show episode. It was a hard-hitting news piece right up there with the piece they did on whiney people disappointed that Netflix is not streaming every movie and old TV show that they want to watch or let their kids watch. Couldn’t wait for the next piece on the wars in the Middle East to take my mind off this Netflix horror story.


  3. 3
    henqiguai says:

    And here one of my main NPR outlets just started one of its many fundraiser periods. Your observations are one of the reasons I switched my limited donations to the other local affiliate, that along with a much better mix of programming. Maybe it’s time to actually send some of those letters composed over the years of listening.

    Oh, and to the point of “giving up on NPR”; who you gonna listen to for not just relatively straightforward news, but also non-newsie informational and discussion programming? Even if I were a sports fan, the local sports talk stations are all only thinly disguised wingnut venting posts.

  4. 4
    RL says:

    Nice Polite Republicans

  5. 5
    wvng says:

    I haven’t given up on NPR, but once upon a time I didn’t listen with an expectation of poor journalism. I used to listen, and receive, information and context rich stories that made me a well informed citizen. Now, if I didn’t read certain blogs that provide what NPR once did, I would have no way to know what is actually happening in the world.

    But NPR, every federal agency, many state agencies, and many non profits are all trying to function in a world where they are in constant fear of assault by the right, and many fear the wingnut Congress will zero them out. No one performs well in a defensive crouch.

    The brown shirts are winning.

  6. 6
    debit says:

    @henqiguai: I don’t listen to anything anymore. Never turn on the radio in my car, rarely have the TV on at home. The quiet is really nice.

  7. 7
    Ash Can says:

    How sad. All that potential, crippled by all that fear.

  8. 8
    numbskull says:


    …who you gonna listen to for not just relatively straightforward news, but also non-newsie informational and discussion programming?

    Uh, nobody on radio?

    Why should I pollute my beautiful mind with pablum that passes for news that some person or persons have kludged together in a daily effort to appease and appeal to masses of people who I don’t know and don’t have much in common with?

    As RL says, they’ve become Nice Polite Republicans- another “win” for the conservative shit-heads.

  9. 9
    Mino says:

    This policy must be a decision of the Board. How many Republicans are on it now. Wouldn’t be surprise to hear they dominate.

    Subvert and destroy. That’s their pattern.

  10. 10
    Thomas says:

    I listen to NPR everday at work with the occasional sojourn to Thom Hartman (which I listen to over the internet) or Sports talk. I have done so essentially everyday for the last 4 years. I can tell you there is 0 truth to the idea that NPR is liberal. They already bend over backwards to include conservative viewpoints on every issue. I can’t count how many hours they have provided to Tea baggers to promote their ideas the last few years. If the new guy is going to go even further in this direction I expect it to be REALLY insufferable.

  11. 11
    srv says:

    So, 700 arrests enough to warrant coverage by NPR?

  12. 12
    arguingwithsignposts says:


    I’ve pretty much given up listening to NPR because the formerly great network has adopted the he said/she said format. They used to be so good. It’s not that they’re so bad now; it’s the disappointment in how far they’ve fallen.

    I am truly curious about this. I recall NPR from my years as a yoot, but vaguely. Were they really ever better than they are now? Or is this just rose-colored glasses?

  13. 13
    kay says:

    citing “fairness” as the most important trait.

    They’re doomed then. Facts are often unfair.

    I feel as if there’s a model out there for non-partisan, objective fact-finding journalism, but they’re often really unfair to lawbreakers, crappy insane ideas, and corrupt people at propublica, so I see why they’d want to make Job One “fairness” at NPR instead of “accurate and complete”.

    Omitting relevant facts to appear “fair” is just as deceptive and misleading as making them up. It’s worse, because it’s sneakier, and harder to detect.

  14. 14
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    Nice Polite Republicans indeed.

    Not long before election day in 2008 a friend wrote to me in a panic because “Even NPR is saying that everything is good news for McCain and he’s almost definitely going to win!” and so on.

    My response was basically: “even” NPR?

    They’ve been a lost cause for years.

  15. 15
    Eric U. says:

    they always had wingnut ravings on in small segments. There never really was any balance of that from the other side.

    Last time some smarmy Penn State professor called and asked for money, I told him that I’d give NPR money when they stopped being republican tools. He was shocked, which is sad. At least he seemed to be smart enough to get the calls stopped

  16. 16
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Oh definitely. It’s really just that the whole landscape has shifted, you have to remember that there was a time when Ronald Reagan was so far to the right that the idea of him ever being elected President was a Doonesbury punchline, as in “what an absurd idea”, and now, someone with his views would have Romney accusing him of being a liberal.

    So NPR was certainly never some far left outlet, but just being mainstream meant that they were fairly liberal by today’s standards.

    Daniel Schorr was probably the last remnant of the old NPR, and I suspect that was a sort of emeritus thing, a young Schorr would never get hired by them these days.

  17. 17
    Carnacki says:

    I’ve got friends who love NPR and public television, but I gave up on them long ago and would just as soon see Cokie Roberts and her ilk not have a place in the “liberal” media to provide cover for the rightwing nuts

  18. 18
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  20. 20
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    They mentioned it last night — just the fact of the arrests of “protesters” for “disrupting traffic” on the BB and “charged with disorderly conduct” — on a news headlines roundup at the top of some hour. Nary a word about possible entrapment. And by the way, the two contrasting NYT heads and leads had been up on the blogs for quite a while by then. I heard it right after reading through the scores of comments on the Brooklyn Bridge thread here, and I must say it was jolting to hear it stated so baldly and non-contextually.


    Were they really ever better than they are now? Or is this just rose-colored glasses?

    Disclaimer: I worked for NPR stations for many years (as a classical deejay, however, rarely on the news side) so I have some pro-NPR bias going on, I’m sure. But yes, I think they really were better back then. They were liberal only in the sense that facts and reality have a well-known liberal bias. Conservatives have hated NPR pretty much since the beginning (1971), but the trembling fear routinely displayed by NPR management is more recent and getting more cowardly all the time.

    There are a lot of programs I love and would miss if they disappeared. And even All Things Considered and Morning Edition are better than any of the alternatives. So I will again be sending my contribution next week when WABE goes into beg-a-thon mode. But I’m with the commenter above who now relies on blogs to get the facts and, yes, balance that NPR used to provide as a matter of course.

  21. 21
    henqiguai says:

    @debit (#6): And numbskull at #8

    I don’t listen to anything anymore. Never turn on the radio in my car, rarely have the TV on at home. The quiet is really nice.

    Yeah, I do that now, more and more often; especially the idiot box thingie. But, especially on my daily commute, I want something, and the radio music market up here is beyond suck (I’m of neither a New Englander nor a suburbanite background – with the exception of some part-time programming in the evenings, there’s nothing being broadcast I find enjoyable). And I’m also an information junkie; if I’m not constantly learning something interesting or useful, I start bouncing off the walls (which is really not a pretty sight).

  22. 22
    artem1s says:

    I remember the whole balance thing becoming an issue first during the Reagan administration and attacks from the Christian right. They slowly unraveled and pretty much dug their own graves with their coverage of the Anita Hill hearings. It certainly wasn’t the whole story but it was one of the few places you heard the complete testimony without being filtered through some pundit’s viewpoint.

    In short, like the NEA, NPR just enraged the wrong people who couldn’t abide not being able to control the whole message. And then NPR blinked, to keep their funding, to keep their station licenses, and who know what else.

    It still better than most of what is out there but only because everything else has shifted so far right.

    I will always miss Daniel Schorr.

    Slightly OT but it seems that the village has been told to out the Koch brothers.


    could be interesting if it gets any legs.

  23. 23
    Baud says:

    Honest question. The only reason NPR is even an issue is because of federal funding, which I read somewhere isn’t that much of their funding. Would they be better off going independent and using their private funds to put on programming untainted by the need to play it safe?

    Although I don’t listen to NPR (or any news radio), but I’d really hate to see them “survive” by killing themselves in appeasing the GOP.

  24. 24
    Kathleen says:

    It amazes me how many people (liberals, Democrats) I know or even just overhear quote NPR as if it is the Holy Grail of information and opinion. I’ll give this one to the Rethugs – pull NPR’s funding, at least for the so-called “news” brainwashing, er, programming.

  25. 25
    Alex S. says:

    fairness… ha! The wingnuts will only hear “fairness doctrine”.

  26. 26
    geg6 says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    They’ve been a lost cause for years.

    For real. The Reagan years is when the rot began. And how long has Cokie Roberts been on NPR? There is no one who spews the Village idiot vomit more and who is absolute proof that the “meritocracy” is little more than a bunch of inbred, genetically inferior but hereditarily privileged robots incapable of anything other than babbling about the arcane Village socialy hierarchy, horse race politics, and a complete inability to process or analyze policy or fact. NPR is the poster child for he said/she said garbage. No one does it better. It’s why Bobo is always their debate analyst.

  27. 27
    Shlemizel says:

    and this is how the papers died – trying to curry favor with people who would not buy a paper anyway & pissing on the people who wanted decent reporting & news.

    Like so much else about America: It was a nice run for a bit, I miss it now that it is gone.

  28. 28
    terraformer says:

    We discontinued our annual support to NPR a couple of years ago. Tired of the blatant cowing to the right and the not-so-thinly veiled jabs at the left.

  29. 29
    catpal says:

    NPR is pretty bad. I flip to listen occasionally but lately seem to mostly catch them interviewing Repugs like Paul Ryan, and they never question him about his total BS.

    I saw an interesting story referenced to NPR that I don’t see anywhere else – and would like to see more coverage of this, and the Repug hypocrites and their so-called “fiscal conservatism.”

    The Greedy Battle For Iraq’s ‘Hearts And Minds

    “In Iraq, we had money everywhere.”

    “It was literally in boxes you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in a safe in my office.”

    “I felt like a drug dealer pulling out bundles of money.”

  30. 30
    El Cid says:

    If NPR could actually focus on “journalism”, I mean the actual process, a crazy thing which McClatchy does on a daily basis, it would be an improvement.

    What shitty focus on “politics” would we lose if NPR shifted away from that?

    Joan Kroc’s fortune was left to them due in part to NPR’s journalism, i.e., reporting, in the runup to the national orgiastic release which was the awsum libration of Eye-rak. You didn’t have to be very dissenting to be seen as such.

    I don’t see how losing a few opportunities to hear the moderate reasonable conservative David Brooks can be a bad thing.

  31. 31
    jonas says:

    I guess this means we can look forward to a lot more of Mara Liason’s reports on how Democrats argue the earth is round, but Republicans disagree, so it just remains to be seen if Democrats can find a way to compromise or not.

  32. 32
    RalfW says:


    using their private funds to put on programming untainted by the need to play it safe?

    Ahh, but a chunk of NPR’s funds are corporate, so don’t expect any big surge in courage if the federal funds ended.

    And while it’s true that national NPR doesn’t really get that much gov’t support, the local affiliates do (or at least did). Many local public radio stations have gotten federal grants for transmitter upgrades and the like. MPR here in MN gets a chunk of federal dollars, or their CEO wouldn’t have been on the radio daily w/ a taped message to contact Congress during the last reauth.

    Ending national NPR funding might not hurt much, but it would likely signal the start of dismantling the affiliate network.

    My plan is to give $Z to NPR, and 4 times $Z to the Houston Pacifica station KPFT (I graduated HS there, still visit frequently to see dear old, old dad. My moderate/purple to red brother even supports KPFT!) and my local non-NPR public station here, KFAI.

  33. 33
    kindness says:

    NPR has become Fox News lite. When they do have the rare story where they offer a non-conservative point of view as counter to the Teahaddist view, they offer up someone who isn’t even a progressive & thus mis-states liberals values & political perspectives.

    No, I listen to them driving to & from work but I stopped giving them money.

    Fox lite sucks.

  34. 34
    Mino says:

    I went and looked it up, and no, Republicans do not dominate the Board. It’s spineless Democrats embarrassing themselves. The Republican-lite variety, it would seem.

  35. 35
    Baud says:

    @RalfW: Thanks!

  36. 36
    kindness says:

    Just this morning Cokie Roberts was talking about the Occupy Wall Street protests and she completely spun them as being a protest against President Obama. She actually said ‘it is bad news for the Obama Administration’. She ignored the protest line against corporate greed and latched on to the protests against government dysfunction and inability to do anything. She completely ignore Teahaddists monkey wrenching the wheels of government and happily proclaimed Obama owned all the bad stuff. It was all against him.

    Cokie….I am going to piss on your grave when you finally die. That’s a promise.

  37. 37
    Tom says:

    Mr. Knell indicated on Sunday that he would try to reorient conversations about NPR away from politics and instead toward its journalism, citing “fairness” as the most important trait.

    I don’t see anything wrong with this. To me, it’s him saying “the political rhetoric that came from our leadership in the past didn’t reflect (and overshadowed) the even-handed tone of our shows and the quality of our journalism. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

  38. 38
    kindness says:

    @Tom: Well there might not be anything wrong with it if you came from the perspective that NPR currently airs a non-judgemental & unbiased reporting.

    The problem with that is that it doesn’t. And having some new guy come over from Sesame Street saying he’s going to double down on what they are currently doing doesn’t bring pangs of joy to those of us who think NPR could be significantly better than it is.

  39. 39
    West of the Rockies (formerly Frank W.) says:

    I must put forth the same disclaimer as SuibhanDuinne @20… I, too, announced classical music and was a weekend board-operator for an NPR affiliate in the mid-to-late 80’s. I still listen almost daily to something on NPR, but their effort to appear fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase) is greatly damaging their reputation.

    It seems a typical NPR story goes a bit like this:
    “A vast majority of scientists say the Earth is round. But Michelle Bachmann disagrees (audio clip of Bachmann): ‘It’s a bunch of liberal hogwash!’ (end of clip). For now, it looks like no one agrees on exactly what shape accurately describes Earth.”

    I’ve seen reports that indicate the number of conservative versus progressive think tank voices heard on NPR skews greatly to the right. Of course, the NPR ombudsman never truly addresses such data (in particular, the irksome Alicia Shepard who recently left the position).

    I still listen, but my tipping point is far closer than I ever thought it would be. I don’t know who I would listen to instead of NPR. Democracy Now only plays for an hour or so a day on a local college station.

    Yes, once again, the ill-informed, passionately intense rightwing seems to be winning the battle….

  40. 40
    Munira says:

    @greennotGreen: Likewise. I used to listen to it every day and now, almost never. I basically now get all my news on the Internet. The TV doesn’t even function anymore since the antenna got hit by lightning (which I didn’t even realize until weeks later when a friend tried to turn it on). On the other hand, the lightning also took out my Internet. I had that fixed the next day.

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