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What makes NPR (and the Economist) so special?

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I've been thinking a bit about this NPR graph that's been floating around. I wish it included another data point: The Economist magazine. Their explosive growth over the last decade is well known, but consider that the publication had a record year in 2009. Would that we all enjoyed circulation booms amidst crippling global recessions.

So what do NPR and The Economist have in common? Two things jump to mind.

The first is that they both situate themselves firmly between news and opinion, in that netherworld I think of as analysis. This is a hobbyhorse for me, but my grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That's left a lot of publications that either aren't used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren't suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.

Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That's also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it's hard to really break through in it unless you're willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there's actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that's fundamentally what they're doing. It's not quite newsgathering, and it's not straight opinion, though there's occasionally opinion in there. It's analysis. It's how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.

Meanwhile, both brands have morphed into statements. For better or worse, carrying the Economist is sort of like wearing a shirt that says "I'm smart and worldly and interested in knowing things about Ghana." But unlike a shirt saying all that, it actually works to convey that impression. An NPR bag, for its part, is a signal of a particular brand of non-confrontational, college-educated, sightly-crunchy liberalism. Is that a stereotype? Sure. But it's working for the station's merchandise department.

Speaking of which, I'll be on NPR's Diane Rehm show this morning. Check local listings and all that.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 9, 2010; 7:14 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

I think you're right that analysis is what NPR does best, but I do think they also do some good reporting, particularly their international stuff.

You're also right that it's an imperfect product. Like everyone else, they occasionally use a term or phrase or way of framing an issue which is commonly used and completely wrong. I think the most recent example I can think of is that during HCR they would sometimes talk about the bill going through Reconciliation in the House, or something like that. It doesn't happen all the time, but I do find myself yelling at the radio on occasion.

Still, for all their flaws I think NPR is the best news source we've got. They're as close to a real example of "Fair and Balanced" as I think you're likely to find. They seem to try to present both sides of an argument while still sometimes calling out positions which aren't factually true. Sometimes I wish they'd call out untruths a bit more strongly, but they do pretty well.

Posted by: MosBen | April 9, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

In a lot of ways NPR has filled the void left by the collapse of mainstream AM radio.

In DC, there used to be WMAL, which combined a pretty strong news operation with entertainment from DJ personalities like Harden and Weaver in the morning and Trumbell and Core in the afternoons. They played a little bit of music. They even had sports with Redskins football, University of Maryland sports, and Ken Beatrice's call-in show at night. Not much overt politics, although Paul Harvey's noon news show certainly had a conservative bent. Growing up in Northern Virgina in the 1980s, my family had WMAL on in the kitchen and in the car almost all of the time.

That's all gone. Lots of cities had big AM stations like that but a lot of them, like WMAL, have been bought by national companies and morphed into hard core conservative talk with Rush/Hannity/O'Reilly or whatever.

I suspect a lot of families, even some that aren't particularly left, have migrated to NPR because it's safe to have on in the kitchen and car with kids but interesting for adults. It's mostly news but it dabbles in culture, music, and sports. It's the closest thing to WMAL's old variety.

I think all of this will be disrupted again in the next 5-8 years when car and kitchen radios get connected to the internet and people start choosing on demand programming.

Posted by: cwright3 | April 9, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Huge coincidence - just last night I was fantasizing about NPR and The Economist (my two favorite news sources) joining forces for a TV news effort. You'd get a level of professionalism and serious analysis not found on any other television news (including PBS News Hour - sorry), and NPR's slight leftward lean would be balanced nicely by The Economist's slight tilt to the right (at least on economic issues). Throw in the crisp, sharp pace and wit of All Things Considered with the cleverness of The Economist and you've got my ideal mix. There's got to be an untapped niche for that.

Posted by: hermus | April 9, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

This is a reassuring sign - part of the reason CNN may be struggling is that its brand of centrism verges on vacuousness. Centrism doesn't have to mean passive relaying of politicians' talking points. I've always thought that if Fox News was as tough on conservative guests as they are on liberal guests, it would be a valuable resource. That kind of even-handed critical thinking is basically what we mean by analysis.

Posted by: jduptonma | April 9, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

jduptonma, I think your hypthetical about Fox is complicated because I don't think they're "tough" on liberals in a way that I think is valuable. Fox shows tend to dismiss liberal arguments out of hand and reply with vacuous conservative talking points. They're also "tough" through unfair edits to interviews and taking quotes out of context.

I want a news source that, through consultation with experts and good reporting, says, "Here are the things on both sides of this issue which do or do not hold up to scrutiny." Then they allow both sides to air their positions, chiming in when somebody says something which is not true.

NPR does a pretty good, but not perfect, job of that. I don't think Fox's problem is that they only do that to the Left and give the right a pass. Their problem is that they give the Right a pass, pound the Left without support, and don't present the full story of facts to their audience.

Hermus, NPR has done a pretty good job transitioning to the digital age. They link their radio content in with their website well, and the format of their radio shows should, I think transition well for a la carte internet options when that becomes how people listen to the radio. If anything, I think that will help them, because they're always trying to find a good show for that 12pm-2pm time slot, which seems to be a tough area to get listeners.

Posted by: MosBen | April 9, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Since 2000 NPR has basically sucked as a source for commentary. It is center right mouthpiece for conventional wisdom. ONe example of many...during the housing bubble, they repeatedly interviewed the head of the National Realty Association without pointing out or questioning her on the obvious conflict of interest that realtors have when talking about the housing market. They didn't bother to talk to any of the economists that were screaming to the rooftops about an unsustainable housing bubble. Their political commentary is center right and also chock full of villager conventional wisdom from Cokie Roberts, Ken Rudin, Juan Williams, and Mara Liasson. Where are the progressives in the political commentary...crickets. There are plenty of other examples of the villager nature of the NPR staff. Nina Totenberg is the outlier, who while centrist at least does a good job of accurately presenting the stakes in SCOTUS cases.

Posted by: srw3 | April 9, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

If there were an Ezra Klein shirt of tote bag I'd sport it with pride. Your post could just as well be a description of what makes this blog one of my internet favorites. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: nico98 | April 9, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Where is the middle? There is a reason that NPR uses so much of BBC in our local broadcasts, because it is their model and mentor of reporting from the middle. Our local paper has one refreshing column on page 2, top taken from Politi.com, a project of the St. Petersberg Time: "Fact Check...Your report card on accountability." I check it first. If our paper drops it, I'll drop the paper and rely on the morning laptop with NPR on in the background instead of the current quiet morning paper.

Posted by: WShoebox | April 9, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

The explanation for the rise in NPR is simple. Most people commute to and from work in cars where one of the few things you can do relatively safely is listen to the radio. Commute times have gotten longer, so more people listen to the radio. There are almost no other news-oriented stations in many (most?) parts of the country. Most stations are dumb and crude shock jocks in the morning, or else music. Where I live there is no alternative if one wants to listen to news and talk during drive times.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | April 9, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

An important thing missing from the graph is a line, or lines, for news/opinion/talk radio.

Did NPR do well at least in part because talk radio in general has become relatively more popular, perhaps because people have less time for TV and reading papers, but are driving as much or more.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | April 9, 2010 9:40 AM | Report abuse

srw3, NPR is no more "center-right" than it is the bastion of liberalism that conservatives like to think it is. By and large they do a good job of laying out a factual groundwork for their stories. Occassionally I think they do report "conventional wisdom" type stuff which isn't accurate, but as compared with most media outlets they do a pretty good job. I'm willing to give any media outlet a few mistakes here and there, or lapses in judgement.

And look, something else that I think is great about NPR is that they're entertaining. Conservatives get away with spouting inflamatory nonsense all the time and just claim that they're entertainers (Beck, most recently). NPR manages to be interesting without yelling at people or making ridiculous things up out of thin air. That's a pretty good accomplishment for a news organization in this day and age.

Posted by: MosBen | April 9, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

In my opinion, NPR and the Economist both exhibit a bias but they do not have a bias-driven agenda to push.

Screeching opinion sources - fox news, msnbc, wsj editorial page - publish exclusively in order to drive that bias. Sometimes they do that for idealogical reasons, sometimes because it is good business to do so.

But NPR and The E don't so much drive their bias as simply let it ooze out here and there as they go about their business. In this way it simply informs and colors their coverage instead of defacto creating it. The result is much more interesting to consume.

Having some sort of bias seems almost a logical consequence of a thoughtful and inquisitive mind colored by context and experience. To be completely unbiased would seem to require censoring yourself and regularly embracing false equivalencies. There might be some value in that in terms of basic introductory pieces but beyond that I really do not see the point.

Posted by: patrickinmaine | April 9, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Most people listen to just Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR to and from work. What's the alternative? Rock music? Oxymoron (j/k). The stereotype you highlighted listens at all hours. I think the former group doesn't fit your stereotype.

People read The Economist b/c they care about Africa? If anything, I'm tired of the Economist's routine in that section--depressed analysis, followed by some get-your-act-together prescription, followed by some optimistic look to the future.

I read The Economist because it's science section is much better than the average and their business section is big and good (it's pretty liberal (OG sense) and proud of it, however you take that).

Did you read The Economist's health care reform coverage? Having read your analysis along with The Economist's for almost a year now, their coverage and analysis almost always felt under-researched and thin/superficial.

RG

Posted by: rglvr | April 9, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

The whole original article (at: http://peltiertech.com/WordPress/npr-analysis-by-chart-busters/) really deserves closer study, which I will do – eventually.

It's stunning that NPR actually has a bigger audience than TV news! When I was a kid, NPR was tiny, and TV was like the big thing. And even in 1998 TV news had three times the audience of NPR. Just 10 years NPR overtook it. This also shows that public sponsorship of journalism can be successful – surprisingly successful, more so than TV news – at least in audience.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | April 9, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

It seems to me that the main thing about the Economist and NPR is that they try to practice quality, non-sensational journalism. Their editors seem to assume that if they do their jobs well, readers and listeners will come. Most other news sources seem to be focused on trying to figure out what the audience wants and then giving it to them.

I think the Economist and NPR prove that the "niche" market for quality journalism is actually quite large. That's the good news. Unfortunately, the niche occupied by them is probably still not large enough to accommodate a lot more players. If Time wanted to go the Economist route it would produce a far better magazine, but would its circulation actually increase? It seems more likely that it would either poach customers from the Econ, leaving both with fewer subscribers, or more likely, that people would say "Why switch to Time when the Econ is good enough?".

Even so, CNN is so far gone, and already a pretty niche product, that it would seem to have nothing to lose by mimicking NPR and the BBC. Since CNN International is already pretty much that product, it should be CNN's flagship news outlet. For one thing, if "everyone" (meaning the folks who watch and comment on teevee news so we don't have to) was watching CNN-I, a lot more interesting and important stories would find their way into the blogospheric conversation than we get by watching, critiquing and commenting on Chris Matthews' eruptions, Hannity's or Olbermann's idiocies, weenie-ass questions on the network Sunday news shows, etc.

Posted by: geoffcgraham | April 9, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

@mosben: Occassionally?????

Again, name me the commentators that balance the right wing slant of the political team at NPR. Crickets....

Go to http://nprcheck.blogspot.com/ for more examples. Their news coverage is center to center right. I usually count 3-5 stories about big business for every labor related story.

Posted by: srw3 | April 9, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

I want that t-shirt. I think it might "actually work to convey" the following worthy impressions: (1) "I'm a dork who reads Ezra Klein's blog" & (2) "I used to know a guy who read The Economist, and I'm still interested in mocking him."

In the same vein, there has to be some revenue out there in Krugman-Python t-shirts...

Posted by: JaneG | April 9, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I can explain why I turned off regular news and listen to NPR.

Local radio doesn't exist anymore. In my area, the only local news really comes from the local public radio station. Everything else is a satellite beamed broadcast with some idiot breaking in once in a while with the temp and traffic report.

I left MSM a looooong time ago. I disgusted at the way CNN and others covered the O.J. Simpson case. I think *that* was the real turning point. Yes, I love football and yes I knew who O.J. was, but OMG I did not need to hear about 24/7. It was during that period of time that I discovered NPR.

I don't now how anyone can watch the FOX/CNN/MSNBC casts, they are ALL awful. Too loud and they just beat a story to death. After 15 minutes, I feel like I've been verbally assaulted. Who wants that?

NPR and the Economist is news for grown-ups who have lives outside the 24/7 news cycle.

Posted by: atomicleo | April 9, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

The beauty of The Economist is that you could read it, and nothing else, and be very well-informed about what's going on in the world at any given time. I don't always agree with their editorial positions, but no other news source comes close to providing the same breadth and depth of coverage. This is the age of information overload, and I like being able to get all the most important news from a single source.

Posted by: traveler16 | April 9, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I agree with traveler16 about the breadth and depth of coverage in the Economist. No fluff, and lots of in-depth international news that gets short shrift elsewhere. The analysis is top notch. I think most news magazines these days are more about "fluff" than hard news, as is CNN with its obsessive coverage of Michael Jackson, polygamy in Utah, etc. etc. No wonder the average American knows so little about the rest of the world--or, sadly, perhaps our coverage is driven by the fact that we don't care about the rest of the world.

Posted by: joal1 | April 9, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to rock the boat here. Ezra (yeah I'd wear an Ezra Rocks tee) said: "The first is that they both situate themselves firmly between news and opinion, in that netherworld I think of as analysis." And then a bunch of commenters jumped on all cable as being equally awful (Fox, MSNBC, no diff).

I disagree. I can't tolerate the screechers on any side. But I never miss Rachel Maddow. She is apologetically liberal, but she is also deeply honest about facts, and provides the most well-rounded analysis of major stories I see anywhere on teevee (Moyers excepted). The quality of her stories reminds me, in fact, of NPR before George W Bush got hold of the governing board and inserted context free balance.

I fell in love with Rachel's approach during the stimulus debate, when one night she said: "It's time to take the radical step of privileging correct information over incorrect information." (Rachel Maddow, 2/6/2009) NPR no longer reliably does that. Rachel does, every night.

Posted by: wvng | April 9, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

What makes NPR different? The radio. You can't surf the web when you're in your car (well, you shouldn't) or when you're cooking, or vacuuming. It's often hard to watch TV at the same time. The loss of competition has helped too- if David Brudnoy hadn't died I'd never have NPR on after 7.

Posted by: msully25 | April 9, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

srw3, look, I'm a fairly liberal person, and fairly well informed (at least, I think so), and while NPR will occassionally drop a conventional wisdom bomb into the middle of a story, it just doesn't happen that often as far as I can tell. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered every day, and I'm pretty regularly in the car in the middle of the day, so I catch the other shows pretty often. They're definitely not a liberal outlet, but they're definitely not a conservative outlet either.

For most of the stories I hear I think there's a good balance of the positions of the various sides and ample amounts of unbiased facts.

Posted by: MosBen | April 9, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

NPR is my last, best news source. I am one of those people who doesn't just listen during the commute hours, but also to the Kojo Nnamdi show and a bunch of other things. Kojo is one of the few places to get good local news.

As for the Economist, I started subscribing to them when I was 15. Back then, it was genuinely solid and quite funny. These days, I find it a lot more superficial and less entertaining. I stopped subscribing a few years ago in disgust, but I still do trust them for several angles over just about anybody else (I like their Latin American coverage especially, Asia isn't bad). These days, I read Deutsche Welle for Africa/Middle East coverage. I like FT for finance and business.

What do these sources have in common? They are still reporting facts that they got on their own rather than just parroting some crap. I agree, there is analysis involved. But there is also an ability to trust the reader/listener to discern the meaning of the facts rather than blaring a stupid opinion about why things are happening. Give me the facts, let me think for myself.

Posted by: BadMommy1 | April 9, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I too listen to NPR and subscribe to The Economist. I do so partly in an attempt to balance left and right, but mostly I feel it's important to have a world view of my country.

Posted by: vailmcc | April 9, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

As an employee at an NPR affiliate, I have to agree with the assessment that NPR is pretty center-left. Though NPR tries to play things straight down the middle, occasionally that bias does show, sometimes even in the language they use to report stories. For example, I've heard reporters and hosts sometimes use the term "marriage equality" in a piece or a story set-up, when "same-sex marriage" or "gay marriage" would have conveyed the same thought. So if you're not in favor of same-sex marriage, does that necessarily mean you believe in "inequality" in marriage? Whether you do or not is beside the point -- NPR has already implied their stance on the issue by the very use of the term "marriage inequality." The debate itself is whether or not gay marriage should be legitimate, and NPR should not be using language that appears to take a position. (Suppose they were to use "traditional marriage preservation" instead?)

The same holds true for another hot-button issue, where NPR has recently decided to stop using "pro-choice" and "pro-life" terminology, in favor of "abortion rights advocates" and "anti-abortion rights advocates" or "any derivatives thereof." [http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/03/26/07]

The implication is that abortion is a "right" that you are either in favor of, or not. Those who are opposed to abortion would argue that it is most definitely not a "right" in any sense. Imagine the furor if NPR instead used "fetus rights advocates" or "anti-fetus rights advocates." Regardless of your position on abortion, NPR has already called into question it's neutrality by using those very terms.

That said, I still think NPR is a great resource and one of the best news organizations out there, despite its occasional center-left bias. I also read the Economist on-line on occasion, and agree with hermus' view that an NPR / Economist television show would be rather interesting.

Posted by: Zayden777 | April 9, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

*Did you read The Economist's health care reform coverage? Having read your analysis along with The Economist's for almost a year now, their coverage and analysis almost always felt under-researched and thin/superficial.*

I like the Economist, but the more you personally know about a subject, the worse the Economists' coverage appears, which makes you wonder about the quality of the stuff you *don't* know that much about.

Zayden, I have to say that your examples of NPR's "bias" are pretty nit-picking. At the end of the day, they are going to have Juan Williams and other commentators from the Heritage Foundation to spout unchallenged talking points from the right, and then their counterbalance will be a middle-of-the-roader like EJ Dionne. The fact that they may not give proper cultural deference to the anti-gay-marriage right by referring to "marriage equality" is really small potatoes: NPR manages to express cultural cosmopolitanism but embrace establishmentarian viewpoints.

Also, the Kojo Nnamdi show is great: this sort of thing used to be the province of local AM radio shows which have been decimated... so the only place you can go where you want to hear a call-in show where you can hear what the mayor and your local representative has to say is from these NPR local interest shows.

Posted by: constans | April 9, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I can't make head or tail of Zayden's comment. He or she is an employee of NPR? NPR thinks of itself as center left???? Who is Zayden trying to fool, us or him/her self? Zayden's mixed up fantasy world in which up is down and black is white, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strenght, etc., etc., illustrates what is deeply, radically wrong with NPR's perspective on world affairs.

Posted by: harold3 | April 9, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

*I can't make head or tail of Zayden's comment. He or she is an employee of NPR? NPR thinks of itself as center left?*

As I said, Zayden pretty clearly expresses what most conservatives' problems with "the media" are-- not that their viewpoints and news coverage and opinions expressed are particularly left-leaning, but rather that they carry themselves with a certain cosmopolitan culture rather than reflecting a more provincial set of cultural shibboleths preferred certain conservative groups. It's all about tribal identity for them and showing deference to them, rather than the specifics of their political coverage, of the sort you would see expected in a high school clique.

I don't think NPR is 'liberal'/'left' politically, but the truth is that the sort of people who want full coverage of news issues in the US and around the world, are open to hearing opinions of gay rights advocates, and are going to have programming that discusses all kinds of religions and the stories of many different cultural groups and subject matter in the USA is going to be *inherently* the sort of thing favored by stereotypical cosmopolitan liberals.

Once a news outlet becomes the sort of place where opinions about gay rights, gay marriage, racial minorities, and different religious perspectives are openly discussed, even if it's counterbalanced by Maggie Gallagher's Bush-administration-sponsored anti-gay-marriage talking points, it is going to be inherently unfriendly ground to cultural conservatives, which is defined by the belief that such voices are marginal or beyond the pale.

Posted by: constans | April 9, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Ezra:

It's interesting that you link NPR and The Economist for another reason: both vehicles are overrated in terms of listenership/readership -- that is, in research surveys more consumers will say they listen to or read these media properties than actually do so.

This is not a problem per se -- except that the chart you and others have been reprinting this week is not accurate. The actual audience for NPR is not measured by Nielsen or Arbitron or any other auditing company. The figures for NPR in the chart are based on very imprecise surveys asking people if they listened to NPR in the past week. And many people like to say yes to that question, regardless if it's true.

Also, the chart reflects an apples to oranges comparison. NPR figures, in addition to being inaccurate, reflect the total audience accumulated over the course of a week, but the Network News numbers reflect a daily average.

Maybe it's true that NPR's audience has grown significantly in the past decade -- but there is no actual reliable data to support the conclusion of the chart that NPR's audience is greater than Network News. It's just not true.

Posted by: wkristol | April 9, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

@ harold3: For the record, I'm not an NPR employee. As stated in my post, I work at an NPR affiliate member station. And if I did work for NPR itself, I suspect my views would be very much in the minority. That said, I think National Public Radio does try to get it right most of the time -- and provides a lot more in-depth analysis of world affairs [of the kind Mr. Klein talked about in this post] than you'll find in a lot of other mainstream media. The type of Orwellian language you alluded to in your post is more typical of the right-wing AM talkers, Fox News, MSNBC, and other outlets that have tilt heavily in one direction or another.

@ constans: Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in my original post, but I would rather NPR avoid "cultural shibboleths" altogether. I would be just as opposed to NPR using language that might support my personal viewpoints for the same reason -- the goal of a newsgathering organization should be to avoid the appearance of bias. As News Director at my station, I take great pains to avoid even the *appearance* of having an opinion on the news I'm delivering over the air. My goal is not to counterbalance a piece tilted to the right, with one to the left. My goal is to that type of story altogether. That's what I wish NPR would do as well.

But at the end of the day, there are plenty of news outlets I regularly enjoy that sometimes seem to take a center-left stance, such as The New York Times and Newsweek magazine (even The Washington Post at times). All are great and wonderful sources of news, although every now and then, I wish they would work harder to appear neutral. However, I suppose that's ultimately the challenge for any news organization. But a noble one.

Posted by: Zayden777 | April 9, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Minor correction to my last comment: "My goal is to avoid that type of story altogether."

Posted by: Zayden777 | April 9, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

*My goal is not to counterbalance a piece tilted to the right, with one to the left.*

What defines a story "tilted to the left"? (or the right?) It seems to me that once your news organization commits itself to covering a diversity of issues and viewpoints, it's going to be inherently unfriendly ground for cultural conservatives who can at best only get a chance to have a platform to express their viewpoint unchallenged but with a companion, "that's an excellent point, but on the other hand" statement. Your problem seems to be that NPR doesn't use the appropriate right-wing buzzwords. And of course they aren't.

NPR is an establishmentarian organization. And of course that comes across as "center left" because you can't have a program called "Speaking of Faith" or an interview program like that of Terry Gross and still be seen as something conservatives are going to prefer listening to. Rather, you are going to attract people who believe themselves to be "open minded", "cosmopolitan", and "sophisticated", which are all personal affectations held by people who believe themselves to be liberal. NPR is considered liberal because the process of newsgathering is not the act of a doctrinaire conservative. But it can never be a "really" left liberal organization because, as you say, you believe you job is to avoid "altogether" a story which may seem to favorable to a liberal point of view... so the compromise is simply to report on "what everyone knows/accepts": once again, a result which will be fairly center-left because it will involve people and facts that are unfriendly for cultural conservatives.

Posted by: constans | April 9, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Its no wonder why NPR & the Economist have gained ground on other media sources, it is because they cater to a crowd of people who prefer thoughtful discussion on the issue instead of the grandstanding and posturing common of other media sources (FOX, MSNBC, NYT, CNN etc. etc.). Plain and simple, it is about engaging in a dialogue instead of being talked at or in some cases yelled at, which is too often the case with other sources.

Posted by: vcueto | April 9, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

I have to say, it's pretty extraordinary to me that nobody's yet mentioned that if NPR could be described as faintly center-left, then the Economist can just as fairly be characterized as clearly center-right.

I suppose this is because cultural and social liberalism is so often mistaken for more thorough-going social and economic liberalism.

Posted by: therapsid1 | April 9, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

"NPR is considered liberal because the process of newsgathering is not the act of a doctrinaire conservative."

I think the same could be said of zealous partisans of any political stripe, both liberal and conservative. Anyone who holds a position dogmatically is unlikely to care much about facts anyway. So I think your view of conservatives as a group is somewhat ungenerous. Just as there are close-minded and unthoughtful conservatives, there are just as many liberals who have the same attributes (and I know a few people in both camps). And there are many "open-minded, cosmopolitan and sophisticated" conservatives as well. No political party or ideological persuasion has a monopoly on Truth, or can claim real "objectivity." [But unfortunately, it's usually the vitriolic, fringe element that gives the rest of a group a bad name.]

You ask "What defines a story "tilted to the left"? (or the right?)." Quite often the answer is in how you frame the story, and whether or not you present all points of view. In the case of abortion, gay marriage and any number of hot-button issues, the appearance of impartiality is all the more important.

You seem to think that I take issue with NPR not using "the appropriate right-wing buzzwords." That is not so. Rather my issue is the fact that "buzzwords" must be used at all. Why use the term "abortion-rights supporter" when "pro-choice" is a perfectly acceptable term, that doesn't carry with it the politically and emotionally-loaded term: "rights"? Because one may believe something to be a right, does not make it so. This is the reason why public discourse exists in the first place -- to debate these very issues. NPR cannot be seen as taking sides if it wants to appear neutral in covering that very debate.

And therein lies the heart of the matter -- there is no "what everyone knows/accepts." If everyone "knows" or "accepts" something, then there would be debate would there? While one may think his or her position is the correct one, you cannot say it's the baseline view or the most "accepted" one.

So when I say "abortion-rights" or "marriage-equality" is not (in my opinion) neutral or bias-free language -- it does not mean that I think NPR hates conservatives and seeks to marginalize my viewpoint. I just think it means that NPR needs to be more cautious about the language it uses, and try to avoid become entangled in the very debate it is in fact trying to cover.

Posted by: Zayden777 | April 9, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

"Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that's fundamentally what they're doing. It's not quite newsgathering, and it's not straight opinion, though there's occasionally opinion in there. It's analysis. It's how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining."

Klein explains reasons for their rise but misses what both are fundamentally too often lacking and what best explains the coincident rise of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the Internet aggregators: NPR's and the Economist's sin of omission--what they choose not to report. This is what the ball game is all about for media with huge spheres of influence.

Posted by: downeast1 | April 9, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

As downeast said above, it's not what cultural buzz-words you use or don't use. That's just a distraction. It's what issues you cover or don't cover.

As for abortion being a right. Contrary to what Zayden misleadingly claims, no one disagrees that it is indeed a legal right at present. Zayden is as wrong about that as he is about NPR's political orientation.

Posted by: harold3 | April 10, 2010 12:34 AM | Report abuse

Wow, that's simplistic analysis! No wonder Washington Post is having difficulties in growing subscriptions!

There are multitudes of reasons as to why NPR is successful - not the least of which is that when it comes to news programming on the radio, the competition is non-existant. BBC exists as an independent news radio only in England. Here NPR has co-opted them quite nicely by entering into a partnerships of sorts, so that NPR and BBC can both offer programming to the local public radio channels. But while the sources of news have dramatically increased over last year, radio is one medium that still has some command over the captive population that listens to NPR - the car driving public. I am sure there are 10 other reasons for success of NPR.

As for Economist, news analysis is perhaps one reason, but may be there are other reasons such as - Economist offers a "different" point of view compared to the US centric magazines. Being based in England is a blessing for Economist, for it allows them to offer a non-US centric point of view.

WSJ has also grown in circulation after recent change in management. But their strategy has been different. Circulation growth has come as a result of shrewd pricing strategy. I am myself an example of this. For instance, when they charged 0.75 per copy I was reading WSJ regularly as long as the paper was provided by my employer. When my employer balked, WSJ lost me. Since the change in mgmt at WSJ, they offered me a subscription for $99 for both online and print. I immediately signed up because I think it is a worthwhile investment.

Clearly, there is a transition going on in the US media and this seismic change is not likely to be due to one or two simple reasons. This topic is very complex and needs further analysis to clearly understand the dynamics of subscription growth and decline going on in the US media.

Posted by: pavansut | April 10, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I can't decide if, in brilliantly condensing NPR's aesthetic down to "a particular brand of non-confrontational, college-educated, sightly-crunchy liberalism," you are endorsing it. Hopefully not. While I loves my NPR, such a bloodless characterization of it can only, fittingly, be called an appeal to "Vampire Weekend liberalism." And no one wants or needs that. Do they?

Posted by: kentropy | April 11, 2010 10:40 PM | Report abuse

The secret is that they turn every piece of news out there into leftist propaganda which feeds the "stuff white people like" type of thinking so prevalent in this country.

Posted by: josef1 | April 12, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

Am I the only one who loves NPR in part for the fact that it doesn't run commercials (in the sense that most other stations do)? Some of the ads I hear on NPR do make me cringe, but at least they're not as obnoxious as most commercials, and you don't have to sit through multiple minutes of commercials in between too-short segments of the show you're trying to listen to.

Posted by: Liz_B | April 12, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

What is the NPR of cable? Jon Stewart of course. His analysis is right up there with anything NPR does, and gets it right. In the guise of humor and satire, Stewart devotes more time to analyzing a topic than NPR does.

In fact, if you can remember back to the good-old-days of NPR when it started, in the 70's, its analysis back them was much more Stewart-like. All Things Considered use to dig into the archives, find quotes that nailed their guests and ask the tough follow-up questions.

I'll bet if you took that graph and added The Daily Show next to NPR's ratings, you'd find two peas in a pod. It's too bad that it takes a news/analysis show disguised as a comedy show to give us (old) NPR quality analysis.

Posted by: HarryB3 | April 12, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Writing to you from NPR. We took a look at this graph and wondered about the source of the market share data since it does not align with what we see in-house. We've posted a response on the NPR Audience Research blog. Cheers! http://www.npr.org/blogs/gofigure/

Posted by: Lkaplan1 | April 12, 2010 11:46 PM | Report abuse

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