How Public is Public Radio?
A study of NPR's [National
Public Radio] guest list
by Steve Rendall & Daniel
Fairness and Accuracy In
Reporting (FAIR), June 2004
When National Public Radio was launched
in 1971, it promised to be an alternative to commercial media
that would "promote personal growth rather than corporate
gain" and "speak with many voices, many dialects."
In 1993, when FAIR published a study of
NPR's guestlist that challenged the network's alternative credentials
(Extra!, 5/93), incoming NPR president Delano Lewis was still
boasting about being a place where the unheard get heard (The
Humanist, 9/93): "Our job is to be a public radio station.
So therefore the alternative points of view, the various viewpoints,
should be aired."
Today, current NPR president Kevin Klose
insists that diversity and inclusivity are among NPR's top priorities
(Syracuse Post-Standard, 7/31/02): "All of us believe our
goal is to serve the entire democracy, the entire country."
NPR, which now reaches 22 million listeners
weekly on 750 affiliated stations, does frequently provide more
than the nine-second-soundbite culture of mainstream news broadcasts.
But is the public really heard on public radio? And is NPR truly
an alternative to its commercial competition? A new FAIR study
of NPR's guestlist shows the radio service relies on the same
elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial
news, and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American
FAIR's study recorded every on-air source
quoted in June 2003 on four National Public Radio news shows:
A11 Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition Saturday
and Weekend Edition Sunday. Each source was classified by occupation,
gender, nationality and partisan affiliation. Altogether, the
study counted 2,334 quoted sources, featured in 804 stories.
In addition to studying NPR's general
news sources, FAIR looked at the think tanks NPR relies on most
frequently, and at its list of regular commentators. To ensure
a substantial sample of these subsets, we looked at four months
(5-8/03) of think tank sources and commentators on the same four
The elite majority
Elite sources dominated NPR's guestlist.
These sources-including government officials, professional experts
and corporate representatives-accounted for 64 percent of all
Current and former government officials
constituted the largest group of elite voices, accounting for
28 percent of overall sources, an increase of 2 percentage points
over 1993. Current and former military sources (a subset of governmental
sources) were 3 percent of total sources.
Professional experts, including those
from academia, journalism, think tanks, legal, medical and other
professions -were the second largest elite group, accounting for
26 percent of all sources.
Corporate representatives accounted for
6 percent of total sources.
Journalists by themselves accounted for
7 percent of all NPR sources. For a public radio service intended
to provide an independent alternative to corporate-owned and commercially
driven mainstream media, NPR is surprisingly reliant on mainstream
journalists. At least 83 percent of journalists appearing on NPR
in June 2003 were employed by commercial U.S. media outlets, many
at outlets famous for influencing newsroom agendas throughout
the country (16 from the New York Times alone, and another seven
from the Washington Post). Only five sources came from independent
news outlets like the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the
National Catholic Reporter.
The remainder of elite sources was distributed
among religious leaders (2 percent) and political professionals,
including campaign staff and consultants (1 percent).
The public on public radio
Though elite sources made up a majority
of sources, the study actually found a substantial increase in
the number of non-elite sources featured. Workers, students, the
general public, and representatives of organized citizen and public
interest groups accounted for 31 percent of all sources, compared
to the 17 percent found in 1993.
The increase comes largely in the general
public category. These are "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.
Public interest voices on NPR reflected
a wide range of opinion, from conservative groups like the National
Right to Life Committee and Texas Eagle Forum to progressive groups
like MoveOn.org and Code Pink. Types of organizations represented
included political organizations, charitable foundations, public
education groups and human rights and civil liberties advocates.
Eighty-seven percent of public interest sources appeared in domestic
Sources identified as workers on NPR programming
in June accounted for 2.3 percent of overall sources and 1.8 percent
of U.S. sources. But spokespersons for organized labor were almost
invisible, numbering just six sources, or 0.3 percent of the total.
Corporate representatives (6 percent) appeared 23 times more often
than labor representatives.
Women: one in five
Women were dramatically underrepresented
on NPR in 1993 (19 percent of all sources), and they remain so
today (21 percent). And they were even less likely to appear on
NPR in stories as experts-just 15 percent of all professionals
were women-or in stories discussing political issues, where only
18 percent of sources were women.
Women were particularly scarce in stories
about Iraq, making up just 13 percent of sources. Nearly half
of these women, 47 percent, were general public sources-that is,
they appeared as nonexpert "people in the street"-as
compared to 22 percent of male sources in Iraq stories. Thirty-three
percent of female sources commenting in Iraq stories appeared
as professionals or experts, while 66 percent of male Iraq sources
appeared in such capacities.
Female sources lagged markedly behind
men in most occupation categories. Women accounted for 17 percent
of journalistic sources, 12 percent of corporate sources and 12
percent of government officials. The only category where females
appeared more often than males was among the small sample of students
(12 of 23); women and men were equally cited as families of military
Six women tied for most often quoted,
with three appearances each. Of these, four were from government:
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Interior Secretary
Gale Norton, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Abigail Thernstrom of the conservative
Manhattan Institute and University of Michigan president Mary
Sue Coleman rounded out the list of women who appeared most frequently
It was not feasible to do an ethnic breakdown
of more than 2,000 radio sources, but an examination of NPR's
commentators suggests that the network may have made more progress
in racial inclusion than in gender balance since 1993.
That NPR harbors a liberal bias is an
article of faith among many conservatives. Spanning from the early
'70s, when President Richard Nixon demanded that "all funds
for public broadcasting be cut" (9/23/71), through House
Speaker Newt Gingrich's similar threats in the mid 90s, the notion
that NPR leans left still endures.
News of the April launch of Air America,
a new liberal talk radio network, revived the old complaint, with
several conservative pundits declaring that such a thing already
existed. "I have three letters for you, NPR.... I mean, there
is liberal radio," remarked conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan
on NBC's Chris Matthews Show (4/4/04.) A few days earlier (4/1/04),
conservative columnist Cal Thomas told Nightline, "The liberals
have many outlets," naming NPR prominently among them.
Nor is this belief confined to the right:
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (3/31/04) seemed to repeat it as a given
while questioning a liberal guest:
"What about this notion that the
conservatives make a fair point that there already is a liberal
radio network out there, namely National Public Radio?" Despite
the commonness of such
claims, little evidence has ever been
presented for a left bias at NPR, and FAIR's latest study gives
it no support. Looking at partisan sources-including government
officials, party officials, campaign workers and consultants-
Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 2 (61 percent
to 38 percent). A majority of Republican sources when the GOP
controls the White House and Congress may not be surprising, but
Republicans held a similar though slightly smaller edge (57 percent
to 42 percent) in 1993, when Clinton was president and Democrats
controlled both houses of Congress. And a lively race for the
Democratic presidential nomination was beginning to heat up at
the time of the 2003 study.
Partisans from outside the two major parties
were almost nowhere to be seen, with the exception of four Libertarian
Party representatives who appeared in a single story (Morning
Republicans not only had a substantial
partisan edge, individual Republicans were NPR's most popular
sources overall, taking the top seven spots in frequency of appearance.
George Bush led all sources for the month with 36 appearances,
followed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (8) and Sen. Pat
Roberts (6). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Secretary of State
Colin Powell, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and Iraq
proconsul Paul Bremer all tied with five appearances each.
Senators Edward Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller
and Max Baucus were the most frequently heard Democrats, each
appearing four times. No nongovernmental source appeared more
than three times. With the exception of Secretary of State Powell,
all of the top 10 most frequently appearing sources were white
male government officials.
Research assistance: Eric Klotz, Grant
Gerlock and Jon Whiten
Broadcast Media watch