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Imaginary NPR

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To the editors:

When I saw Glenn Garvin's piece ["How Do I Hate NPR?," June 25] attacking NPR as a constant stream of propaganda for the Democratic Party, I knew something was wrong. FAIR's study of NPR, rather bizarrely cited by Garvin as corroboration for his thesis, found that, if anything, NPR has a fetish for balance--narrowly defined as presenting the views of the leaders of the two establishment parties. The problem our researcher, Charlotte Ryan, documented with NPR's political coverage is not that "both sides" don't get to speak, but that its conception of "both sides" leaves out most of the country.

However, Garvin seemed to back up his complaints with many examples, so I decided to check them out. My conclusion: He has a lot of examples because he makes them up.

I used the Nexis database to see what Morning Edition and All Things Considered actually reported during the one week--April 12 to 16--that Garvin "studied." (The Nexis transcripts do not include NPR's news briefs, which mostly consist of wire stories. These take up roughly a quarter of NPR's broadcast time, and are often preempted for local news. Nexis does transcribe virtually all substantive reporting done by NPR staff or stringers.)

I first looked into the topic that Garvin started off with: NPR's coverage of Republican opposition to President Clinton's stimulus program. Garvin claimed that "NPR portrayed an indomitable Bill Clinton riding a tidal wave of public support against a faceless and--more importantly, in the context of radio--voiceless Republican rabble." Clinton and Vice President Gore supposedly appeared again and again to pitch their program, backed up by NPR reporters and commentators. "And where was the Republican rebuttal to all this?" Not on NPR, Garvin scolds.

It is, however, in the Nexis transcipts of the NPR programs Garvin claims he listened to. In various segments, Clinton was followed by Representative Bob Michel (R-Illinois), Representative Dick Armey (R-Texas), and Senator Phil Gramm (R-Texas). Another segment was a lengthy debate between former representative Vin Weber, a Republican, and former representative Thomas Downey, a Democrat.

The only one-sidedly partisan news report I found featured Republican senator Slade Gorton of Washington, who was heard at length complaining about Clinton's program to a group of small business owners in Seattle, all of whom praised Gorton for standing up to Clinton. Strangely, Garvin doesn't seem to have heard this report, which featured Republican attacks on Clinton without rebuttal. (Nor did he hear the commentary from the columnist urging Clinton to cut the capital gains tax.)

All in all, in NPR stories on the stimulus program debate that week I counted 11 substantive soundbites from Democratic politicians and 12 from Republicans (including one from an analyst at a Republican think tank). So much for Garvin's "voiceless Republicans." What seems really noteworthy about NPR's coverage of the stimulus package was the absence of anyone but politicians--aside from the five small business owners at Senator Gorton's political event, who all denounced Clinton, no one who would be affected by the plan was heard from.

Garvin's next complaint was that NPR had one-sided coverage of the purported POW document that turned up in Moscow. When Garvin's article first appeared, in Washington's City Paper, he complained bitterly that NPR failed to include the views of Stephen Morris, the researcher who allegedly found the document.

After I pointed out, in a letter to City Paper, that NPR had in fact featured a quote from Morris, Garvin adapted his claim for the Reader: Now his problem was that NPR hadn't actually interviewed Morris, but instead relied on a soundbite taped from a Nightline interview.

After NPR reporter Jon Greenberg pointed out that he had, in fact, interviewed Morris in the studio, Garvin withdrew this claim as well. It's hard to see what his real complaint about NPR's POW coverage is unless it's that soundbites from POW advocates outnumbered POW skeptics by only two to one. (Typical of right-wing media critics, he presents his desire for homogeneity as a call for "balance.")

But the repeated errors and retractions illustrate a fundamental sloppiness and/or dishonesty in Garvin's work. Either he didn't bother listening carefully to the newscasts he was supposedly studying, or he preferred attacking an imaginary NPR to critiquing what the network actually broadcasts.

Garvin's sister, whom he portrays as something of a kook, may be doing herself a disservice by listening to nothing but NPR. But she would be far worse off if she relied on her brother's reporting in the Chicago Reader.

Jim Naureckas

Editor, EXTRA!

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

New York

Glenn Garvin replies:

I actually feel sorry for Naureckas. Here he is, having the time of his life posing as a fearless and objective media critic, fighting for the truth without fear or favor--and his little buddies at NPR spoil it all by letting the cat out of the bag. Yes, there it is on page 29 of NPR's just-issued 1992 annual report: Naureckas's organization is one of NPR's financial backers. Once we know that--once we know that Naureckas is not a media critic but an NPR public-relations spokesman--his letter makes a little more sense. After all, lying and distorting the truth to improve a client's image, well, that's what press agents do.

Now let's take up Naureckas's letter. I certainly sympathize with his reluctance to actually listen to NPR; I myself will do so only when someone pays me for it. But trying to analyze NPR's content by reading Nexis transcripts is hopeless; Nexis only transcribes the network's longest stories. For the April 13 edition of All Things Considered, for instance, Nexis offers transcripts of only 8 of 33 news stories.

When Naureckas first tried to use Nexis as his basis for evaluating NPR content, in a letter to Washington's City Paper a couple of months ago, I was willing to be charitable and assume he was simply an idiot rather than a liar. Alas, the fact that he continues to make the claim that Nexis transcribes all but a few inconsequential wire stories makes it impossible for me to keep offering excuses for him.

Here, for instance, is a transcript of a typical story from All Things Considered, on April 12. It does not appear on Nexis.

LAURA KNOY: President Clinton stepped up the fight to pass his economic stimulus package today, blaming Republican senators for blocking a $300-million child-immunization program. The President said the GOP was holding American children hostage. NPR's Elizabeth Arnold reports.

ARNOLD: Seizing a popular element of the $16.3-billion stimulus proposal, the President accused Republican senators of playing politics and ignoring the needs of American children. While the administration is looking for a compromise to win over the support of key senators, the President appealed to a group of New England business leaders today to help put the pressure on Congress.

CLINTON: And if you've been following the filibuster in the Senate you know that just a few people can stop action on important economic legislation, by talking and talking and talking.

ARNOLD: With the help of one conservative Democrat, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, Republicans have stalled a vote on the president's stimulus legislation. Minority leader Bob Dole says the filibuster is a warning to the administration not to overlook the GOP. I'm Elizabeth Arnold, at the White House.

Is Naureckas really saying that NPR's White House correspondent sat around on her ass all day playing solitaire and then simply pulled this story off the wire? And, pray tell, how do you "rewrite" a Clinton soundbite from wire copy? (By the way, Jim, please note that the charge that Republicans are jeopardizing the health of American children for political ends is repeated twice in that piece with no GOP rebuttal. Could you clarify for us how many repetitions would be required before you would consider the report "one-sidedly partisan"?)

I've included this transcript so Reader readers can see for themselves just how fraudulent Naureckas's letter really is. But even if he were right--even if the stories not carried on Nexis were just rewritten wire copy--so what? If we're examining NPR's content for evidence of ideological bias, the selection and editing of wire copy is just as relevant as stories written from scratch by NPR reporters. A real media critic (as opposed to an NPR flack) would understand that.

The rest of Naureckas's letter is just as untruthful. I never wrote that NPR didn't interview any Republicans at all; I did write that "it wasn't until the afternoon of April 15, the fourth day that I listened to the network, that I heard a Republican voice on the subject of the filibuster." All the Republican soundbites he cites were used on April 15 and 16, when even the most fanatic Cokiephile could see that the stimulus package was in trouble.

As for his point about NPR's stories on American POWs in North Vietnam, it's true that I was in error--which I've already acknowledged in these pages. Naureckas, however, continues to make claims that he knows are false. That's the difference between being mistaken and being a liar.

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