< The Bias Bias


Friday, March 11, 2011

IRA GLASS: Hey, guys?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

BOB GARFIELD: As I live and breathe!


BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Ira, what are you doing here?

IRA GLASS: Well, are you guys going to cover like the thing that nobody talks about in this whole debate over defunding public radio, or at least nobody in public radio talks about it, which is –


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The elephant in the room?

IRA GLASS: Yes, all the conversations about defunding public radio. If you look at the lobbying effort that public radio and public TV have mounted - they had this campaign called 170 Million, and there’s a website, and it’s all about how 170 million Americans each month listen to public radio or watch public TV, and we're all in this together, and that includes a lot of conservatives. And I feel like it completely sidesteps the actual substance of the main attack on public radio, and that is the attack that we have a left-wing liberal bias. Can I play you guys a clip?


IRA GLASS: All right, here we go. This is Bill O’Reilly from FOX News, which is the source of most of this.

BILL O'REILLY: NPR has now devolved into a totalitarian outfit functioning as an arm of the far left. There’s no question about that.


BOB GARFIELD: That’s funny. That same video clip was played at our conference call this morning with Kim Jong-Il, when he gave us our marching orders.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay so, Ira, what’s your beef then, really? Is it that public radio itself is not willing to take this on, because about 25 years ago I was asked to do a piece, is NPR biased to the left, and I couldn't find a metric to apply to the question in order to answer it.

IRA GLASS: I don't know the methodology that somebody would use, but I feel like public radio should address this directly, because I think anybody who listens to our stations understands that what they're hearing is mainstream media reporting. We have nothing to fear from a discussion of what is the news coverage we're doing. As somebody who works in public radio, it is killing me that people on the right are going around trying to basically rebrand us, saying that it’s biased news, it’s - it’s, you know, it’s left wing news, when I feel like anybody who listens to the shows knows that it’s not. And we are not fighting back. We're not saying anything back. I find it completely annoying and [LAUGHS], and I don't understand it.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so this gets back to not only Brooke’s problem finding a metric to report on this story, but it’s especially difficult when you and I both know that if you were to somehow poll the political orientation of everybody in the NPR news organization and at all of the member stations, you would find an overwhelmingly progressive, liberal crowd, not uniformly, but overwhelmingly.

IRA GLASS: Journalism, in general, reporters tend to be Democrats and tend to be more liberal than the public as a whole, sure. But that doesn't change what is going out over the air. And I feel like, well, let's measure the product. And, and you’re saying what’s the metric that we can measure the product on. I would say go through, you know, this morning’s Morning Edition and find me even a sentence that smells like political bias to you. Like, like, find one. And, you know, the problem with this, actually, should – can I just keep talking or do you need some questions from you?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sure - no, go ahead.

IRA GLASS: Okay. So I've actually talked to the people who run that lobbying campaign for public radio and asked, like, how come we're not defending our brand, how come we're not arguing on the question of left wing bias? And they say, well, as a political fight it’s a really hard one because you can get to this - into this kind of he-said/she-said, where, where if the other side can find one crazy example it becomes very hard to argue. So they're like, let's stay away from that when we're lobbying Congress. But, at the same time there’s a sense, and -and I've talked to some people at, at NPR and at our distributor, PRI, where there’s a sense of like we need to, to - when this political fight is done, we need to actually go out and reassert, here’s who we are with the audience. And, in fact, Vivian Schiller, the president of NPR who quit this week, on Monday she gave a speech at the National Press Club which was an opening salvo in that, where she basically made a speech saying, like, we are - we are mainstream media, this is not left wing media. I just think that that is not enough of, of the messaging. And I don't even exactly know [LAUGHS] if I'm using the word “messaging” right here, but I –


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay Ira, what do you want us to do?

IRA GLASS: Well, On the Media, you are the perfect vehicle for this.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] You were made for this purpose, to measure the political bias of public radio. It needs to be done. You are the only ones.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]. You are the ones best positioned of everyone in the country, in the public radio system in the world, to do this mission. And I hand it to you. It’s an urgent mission and it needs to be done, and done beautifully.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What if the answer is, yes, NPR has a left wing bias?

IRA GLASS: It’s not gonna be yes.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What if the answer is, it doesn't have a left wing bias, is that going to change anyone’s mind?

IRA GLASS: Well, there - there are certain people you’re never gonna change their mind, and there are certain people who are capitalizing for political gain on - on the thought that it’s a biased network. But the - but the fact is, is that I think there’s a persuadable group of people who are ready to hear that message, if you could come up with proof.

BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, one more thing though, and this - this is one of those genie-back-in-the-bottle things. No matter what methodology you choose and no matter what the results are, for now and, and forever people can point to Ron Schiller in the sting tape running his mouth and confirming all of the most sinister thoughts anybody in the Republican Party has ever had.

IRA GLASS: The thing I would note is that Ron Schiller was not saying it on our air. He’s not a reporter. And you would never hear anything like that from any of our reporters. How do you counter that? [PAUSE] With the truth, baby, with the truth. That’s all we got. Listen to what we're doing on the air, and measure it.

[WHISTLE-LIKE SOUND] Call it, call it impractical, call it idealistic, but I have to believe if we get out there with the truth, that, that weapon is a real weapon and actually means something.



BOB GARFIELD: That’s impractical, unrealistic and naïve.

IRA GLASS: But you'll do it.



BOB GARFIELD: So folks, tune in next week to hear how we pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Ira Glass.