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Further Discussion of the NPR Controversy

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To the editors:

Having once worked on a long piece on NPR myself, I read Glenn Garvin's feature in the June 25 issue with interest. I read with even greater interest an exchange on that piece between Jim Naureckas and Garvin in the letters column of the August 13 issue. I don't know either man, and I don't want to get involved in the ideological points of their debate, but from my own research on NPR it seemed to me on first reading that Naureckas nailed Garvin on a number of inaccuracies and that Garvin's response was to avoid Naureckas's points and insult him. So I did some homework on the subject, ordered tapes of the original NPR broadcasts in question, and talked to--and taped--both Naureckas and Garvin. When the two of them duked it out in the pages of the New York Press and Washington City Paper, I sent in my findings. I now observe that Garvin, in his letter of August 13 to the Chicago Reader, has considerably altered his attack in acknowledgment of the mistakes I caught him on. Nevertheless, in regard to their exchange of 8/13,

(1) Naureckas refuted Garvin's charge of an NPR ideological bias by checking the Nexis database for Morning Edition and All Things Considered for the week of April 12-16. Naureckas states, quite clearly, that "the Nexis transcripts do not include NPR's news briefs which mostly consist of wire stories, but they include virtually all substantive reporting done by NPR staff or stringers."

(2) Garvin's response to that is: "Trying to analyze NPR's content by reading Nexis transcripts is hopeless; Nexis transcribes only the network's largest stories. For the April 13 edition of All Things Considered, for instance, Nexis offers transcripts of only 8 of 33 stories."

What we have here are two different definitions of what is a "story." By "story" Naureckas means the pieces NPR writes itself--the long stuff, which in terms of airtime represents almost 80 percent of what you hear on NPR. All of this--repeat, all--is transcribed onto Nexis. The only pieces that are not included on Nexis are what NPR calls "News Headlines" or "News Briefs," some of which are only a few seconds long and all of which are rewritten wire service copy.

Now, you may accept Naureckas's definition of "story," or you may accept Garvin's; but if Garvin had told you what his definition was you might not have put so much credibility in his reply to Naureckas--or in his story on NPR, for that matter. Oh, and by the way, Garvin is in error on what's on the April 13 Nexis. It contains 12 stories, not 8. That's 12 stories by Garvin's definition of story.

Well, OK, Garvin replies, but who says that the selection and editing of wire service sound bites can't present an ideological bias? No one. But Garvin never makes the case to prove NPR's ideological bias. He presents in your letters column what he calls a "typical" sound bite in which President Clinton is given the last word "without a Republican response." But who says that sound bite is "typical"? Garvin. What evidence does he offer in support of this? None. But if Garvin had gone back and done some research on the subject, he'd have found that one of the longest running criticisms of NPR--one made by myself, in fact--is that they almost always give the president the last word, for no other reason than that he's the president. They did it with Bush, they did it with Reagan, and there's nothing ideological about them doing it with Clinton.

Moreover, Garvin is simply dead wrong, both in his NPR story and in his reply to Naureckas, when he says that "It wasn't until the afternoon of April 15, the fourth day I listened to the network, that I heard a Republican voice on the subject of filibuster." When I phoned Garvin in Florida, he admitted that he had listened to local NPR broadcasts, not the original NPR tapes (which are obtainable through NPR). He seemed unaware that local stations, particularly those in Florida, are notorious for snipping off the ends of stories in order to slip in short commercials. If Garvin had done his homework and obtained the original tapes, he'd have heard a response from Robert Dole on April 12 and Phil Gramm on the 13th.

That Garvin did not know this calls into question all his conclusions on NPR.

By the way, Garvin tried to slide off Naureckas's criticism by citing Naureckas's organization, FAIR, as "one of NPR's financial backers." This is almost too comical to mention, but, again, if Garvin had done his homework and contacted NPR he'd have found that FAIR's "contribution" consisted of $10--the $10 FAIR paid for the NPR transcripts. If you buy something from NPR, you become a contributor; I found out because the $17 worth of tapes I purchased to do my research got me listed as a financial backer. Garvin might be interested to know that some of the other left-wing groups who backed NPR are the Kellogg Corporation, Chrysler, Walden Books, New Yorker magazine, and the National Geographical Society.

Allen Barra
South Orange, New Jersey

Glenn Garvin replies:

What a dedicated letter writer Allen Barra is! And, really, the term "letter writer" doesn't do justice to his role. For four months he's been deluging editors all over the country with phone calls, faxes, and letters in an attempt to besmirch my NPR story. (On one especially exuberant day, he called me long-distance at home and secretly--and illegally--taped the conversation.) And let's not even talk about the Nexis bills he's run up. A more suspicious person than I might wonder who Barra's patrons are.

I won't bother to engage in a line-by-silly-line refutation of Barra's agonized soliloquies about when a story is not a story or when one-sided reporting is actually balanced. I would, however, like to make a couple of points.

(1) Barra says I "admitted" that I listened to "local NPR broadcasts" instead of "the original NPR tapes." That is, I listened to NPR on the radio, which is how everyone else listens to it. (Except people with apparently unlimited research funds, like Barra.) As for Barra's contention that NPR strives to put out a balanced newscast, but its affiliate stations systematically snip out stories to tilt the news to the left . . . well, take a couple of aspirin, Allen.

(2) Barra says it was unfair to brand his chum Jim Naureckas of FAIR as a financial backer of NPR. Well, I didn't say it--NPR did, in a section of its 1992 annual report titled "Gifts and Grants." It does not say, "A list of anyone who ever bought a cassette from NPR" for a very good reason--that's not what it is. It contains only 200 or so listings, virtually all of them foundations, corporations, or prominent people like Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas. It emphatically does not include Allen Barra's name for his $17 worth of tapes.

(3) Barra suggests that I keep changing my story in response to his "findings." Wrong, Allen. The only guy to change his story is you. In one of your original phone calls to an editor in New York, you offered to pay me $5,000 if I could find "one single word" spoken on an NPR newscast that didn't appear in Nexis transcripts. When I found those words, by the thousands, you suddenly clammed up about the $5,000.

In the New York sporting circles in which Barra fancies that he is included, this behavior is known as "welshing." But I'm sure it's a simple case of forgetfulness. Now that I've reminded you, Allen, I'm sure the check will be in the mail. Just take it out of that amazingly large phone budget you have for harassing editors.

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