Journalists are People Too

Friday, November 04, 2011


In the mainstream media, objectivity and care to avoid the appearance of bias are the ideal. But Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU and blogger at pressthink believes that accuracy and transparency are far more important than the appearance of objectivity. Brooke talks to Rosen about how public radio should handle the public political opinions of its employees.

Phillip Roebuck - "Rattleback Blues"

Comments [19]


I'm all for what Rosen presents. Go for it! But I doubt you have the fiscal stones to do it. Short of that transparency, I appreciate what NPR did with Curran and Simeone. If you talk center, at least TRY and live out that claim.

(For those of you who say, "C'mon! What about David Brooks and Cokie Roberts? NPR is center and balanced!" Take a moment to read Brook's wiki page that begins this way: "[Brooks] is a Canadian-born political and cultural commentator who considers himself a moderate and writes for the New York Times as a conservative." Exactly. (It isn't any great insight that we also think of Roberts as a Washington-insider- moderate as well.)

Nov. 11 2011 11:08 AM

NPR has placed itself in a catch-22. If it does what both Rosen and Brooke suggest (I read Brooke's new book as also saying that we are to be more transparent, and we hosts believe that truth and reality have a liberal bias – what Rosen carefully calls avoiding a "false balance." That's a good one!), then transparency may make these on-air issues go away. Curran and Simeone won't look any different then Glenn Beck speaking at a Tea Party rally because we know who they are like we know who Beck is. Yes, less controversies and fewer CEOs fired. But the moment that happens, we conservatives who don't actually hear anyone like us on NPR will say, "But at least I get to choose whether I want to pay for Beck, but my taxes are taken from me to go to these opinionators," and they will have non-doctored, self-proclaimed evidence.

Nov. 11 2011 10:39 AM

NPR, you take the advice of Jay Rosen at your peril. But it would indeed be bold!

First, Rosen's advice comes with a significant presupposition: NPR has "political enemies" – so don't cater to them. But *why* does NPR have enemies? Because it skews to the progressive left in nearly all its commentary, and certainly with its regular hosts. This view crashes right into what Brooke says later in the interview – that public radio is in the center. Of course, if that were true, NPR wouldn’t have so many enemies! But when someone lets something moderate, like Juan Williams moderate musings on air, we see what can happen to them. It doesn't fit the NPR liberal brand,

So Rosen solution is, just be transparent about who you are. But if NPR actually does this, it WILL be the effectual end of funding. It will reveal the very thing it took hidden cameras to confirm. "We are left and progressive."

Nov. 11 2011 10:35 AM
Mike Smith from Los Angeles, California

OWS is not related to the tea party movement. The tea party movement started in protest to the bank bailouts by the politicans. It grew to include protesting high taxes and the growth of the size of government.

Nov. 08 2011 09:01 PM

I like the comments of Bob Garfield, and I agree with him although, coming from me, that might make Bob wince.

Bob's right; OTM has always been a program of commentary and analysis. It's a very, very fine program which is why I listen to it faithfully.

I also detect in OTM, a decided political tilt; it is sometimes more and sometimes less noticeable. I think that Bob is aware of it and he manages it pretty well. I'm not allergic to left-leaning commentary; I'd have canceled my subsrciption to The New Yorker a long time ago if I had such an immunological sensitivity.

Bob and Brooke have a perfect right to run this program as they do, and I don't think that WNYC's handling of Bob Garfield and/or Caitlin Curran is inconsistent or hypocritical or wrong.

But @"c from california": I don't know if a conservative corollary to "Democracy Now!" could survive on a typical public radio station. I would think that a typical public radio station's audience would be much like the commenters on this OTM website. Many would be threatening to withdraw pledges unless the station withdrew such a show and replaced it, with Michel Martin or Tavis Smiley or Terry Gross.

This is the problem; public radio, by going after better ratings and listener support with plainly political commentary and analysis, has created its own audience. And it may now be stuck with that audience.

And in the end, it is scant reason to support it through state action, as the prestige national public radio network, insofar as it that network catering to a single demographic.

Nov. 06 2011 11:27 PM

"OWS is the mirror image of the Tea Party"

Perhaps if someone puts a Gadsden flag over the women-only safety tent at OWS.

A pity the news coverage and analysis of the two movements is not a mirror image.

Nov. 06 2011 09:42 PM
Bob Garfield


Economic justice, the thread that seems to link all of the various constituencies on the OWS movement, is and always has been associated with the political left. It is arguably the defining principle of the political left. So claiming that OWS is apolitical in my view is disingenuous at best. Likewise -- since there is virtually no remaining leftist element of the Republican Party -- the fact that OWS isn't aligned with the Democratic Party isn't especially relevant. The movement is certainly anti-Republican.
Oh, and you know those careless journalists who believe OWS is the mirror image of the Tea Party?
I am one of them.

Nov. 06 2011 08:46 PM
Derek Caney from Nutley, NJ

Mr. Garfield:

For what political party or candidate office was Ms. Curran advocating?

Nov. 06 2011 07:44 PM
Bob Garfield

Brooke was correct in saying I believed recusing myself from Comcast stories and explaining why was sufficient for dealing with the bias issue, but I should point out this was not my main justification for my Comcast Must Die project.

I believed there was no conflict of interest. On the contrary; OTM is a program of commentary, analysis and criticism. We often take positions, and make no attempt to hide behind third parties' definitions of bias, neutraility or, heaven forfend, "balance."

We trust our listeners to trust us, out of experience, to be intellectually honest -- as opposed to partisan and doctrinaire, and to call a given issue as we see it. (Furthermore, we often stake out no position whatsoever. Many of our subjects are too nuanced or ambiguous to suggest obvious answers. We do our best to flesh out the issues -- even knowing that certain percentages of our audience will be infuriated at our refusal to take one side or another. That fury frequently winds up with accusations that we have been co-opted by one ideological worldview or another.)

But back to Comcast. For 26 years, I have been a professional critic. That's what I do, and that is much of what OTM does. We are very much in the fault-finding business. That's what I did: find fault with Comcast customer relations management. If there was any conflict, it was in showing Comcast the correct way to operate in the socially connected online world. In effect, I consulted FOR the company. (Fear not. I didn't accept any fee. And, believe me, none was offered.)

Still, Brooke was correct. WNYC, while ultimately persuaded by my arguments, was most uncertain that others would see things my way. They were also very unhappy that I don't have the courtesy and good sense to inform them beforehand. And, let me not be too glib here, there is obviously a difference between a critic finding fault and a crusader rallying others to a cause. I did that. Had my target been a political party or candidate office, I would have been summarily -- and properly -- fired.
I was working in advocacy, but not political advocacy -- and thus a gray area. And while I appreciate Professor Rosen's support, I'm not sure I would make the same set of decisions today.

Nov. 06 2011 06:30 PM
c from California

I agree with Jay Rosen. Appearance of objectivity is not important. Being object is.
I also agree with Caitlin that OWS, being representative of the 99%, is about everyman, not someone.
I also agree with Amos Parker -it's about economics, not politics.
I also agree with theocracynow-- Charles seems to blame NPR or PRI for there being no conservative show to match Democracy Now! on the airwaves. How can that be a valid criticism when nothing is stopping those who want to create such programs from doing so. I'm fairly sure if they were popular enough, they too might be linked, especially if they were funded in the same way as DN.
There is no such person as one who has no opinion. For NPR or its affiliates to try to pretend there is such a person seems most disingenuous, silly, and outright stupid.
The case of the person producing a show about Opera is a prime example of the latter.

Nov. 06 2011 06:17 PM

Anne from Maine:
When I hear an interviewer like Terry Gross, what I expect, and what she usually supplies, is a combative style of interviewing if the interviewee is a conservative (Bill O'Reilly, Lynne Cheney, Boyden Gray) and a softball interview if the interviewee is a left-leaning reporter from the New Yorker, or Al Franken, or Steven Colbert, or any other representative of the Democratic left.

I see that pattern repeated throughout public radio. And I see it repeated in editorial choices about who to interview, what stories to do, how to do those stories, and when to do a given story.

When I listen to The Takeaway (Caitlin Curran's former program), that is what I hear; a left-leaning agenda as expressed in production choices, story editing, interview styles, etc.

And it shows in public radio's self-selected audience. Public radio has created an audience, that it now appears to want to serve, with one particular ideology. When The Takeaway ran with pro-OWS stories for days until Cailtin Curran was fired (after which The Takeaway stepped away from the story for several days), it closed the week with an interview with conservative Amity Schlaes. And the comments poured in, with one listener after another complaining that The Takeaway would give voice to such a person.

Public radio has created its own world; it is one in which increasingly, daily program lineups look just like the NPR News homepage:
Morning Edition
All Things Considered
Fresh Air
The Diane Rehm Show
On The Media
On Point
Talk of the Nation
Talk of the Nation Science Friday
Tell Me More
Weekend Edition Saturday
Weekend Edition Sunday

Add to that lineup a smattering of other PRI programs that offer journalistic-appearing pronouncements on issues of the day; Marketplace, The World, This American Life, Tavis Smiley, Studio 360.

Public radio newstalk has made itself the equivalent of the New York Times editorial pages, or MSNBC, or, or The Nation (to name the leading left-wing news organs). Personnel can move easily within the ideological frameworks of all of those institutions, just as Caitlin Curran. Ms. Curran didn't just work in public radio; she also did some work for It is a natural sort of revolving door.

There are few things that stratify the American populace into tiny subgroups quite like radio. In moving away from fine arts, and more in the direction of liberal newstalk, public radio stations have successfully selected and trained an audience of educated liberals to support that kind of "public radio", and will be very difficult to shake up that demographic with any dissenting views from the right.

But as long as public radio is programming itself to liberal viewpoints, that cannot be deserving of public support through tax policies, and tax exempt foundation donations, as well as the infrastructural support of state universities and publicly-held broadcast licenses.

Nov. 06 2011 03:20 PM
Amos Parker from Danville, VT

Piece said that Caitlin Curran was fired for open political advocacy. I think it's clear that she was engaging in open economic advocacy. Are they the same?

Nov. 06 2011 02:40 PM
Anne from Maine

I found Jay's comments very compelling. They gave voice to my frustration with listening to many of the interviews on npr. Reporters are people, they have a point of view and when they state their own bias they are being more transparent and more interesting. By not stating a point of view and pretending to be unbiased they actually end up sounding like they support the untruths that the interviewee espouses.
They sound unintelligent. I would rather they carefully fact check and state their bias. It is so frustrating to listen to a "politically neutral interview"...sometimes I have to turn the show off.

Nov. 06 2011 11:18 AM

"Theocracynow from the internet" makes the fatal error in this argument; that public radio is somehow supposed to be a political "counter" to the mostly-conservative lean of commercial talk radio.

If that is the argument, it will fail. The one thing that public radio's advocates in Washington can never accede to is that public radio leans left (for any reason). Public radio, and NPR in particular, needs cling to its own "fair and balanced" credo.

But this does raise once again the continuing problem in any discussion of public radio. "NPR," per se, hides behind its claim of strict fairness on the part of its core programs (ATC, Morning Edition, etc.) and it distances itself from all other programming, like OTM, Democracy Now! and The Takeaway.

I suggest that it is really necessary to broaden the debate. It is fine to make the NPR/non-NPR distinction, but we should just as clearly note that for the vast majority of public radio stations (many of whom have abandoned classical music and jazz in favor of left-leaning newstalk) their daily programming schedule, wrapped around a couple of NPR news programs, is a steady diet of Terry Gross, Bob Garfield, Ira Glass and Tavis Smiley.

Produced by people like Caitlin Curran, for listeners like Caitlin Curran.

Nov. 06 2011 11:07 AM

Can't think of a conservative news outlet that is dedicated to accuracy.

Nov. 06 2011 08:51 AM

There should be no problem with a news outlet being politically biased provided the audience knows it and doesn't have to pay for it against their will.

Public radio pretends to be "the ones in the center" and unbiased and their "progressive" audience pretends to believe them yet if a host did espouse even a slightly conservative viewpoint the same audience would be shocked, dismayed and demand their expulsion. This farcical suspension of disbelief in the "progressive" media is fine but why must it be on the public's dime?

Nov. 05 2011 10:08 PM
theocracynow from internet

Charles, The airwaves are flooded with conservative voices. As you note, Democracy Now is not in fact an NPR or PRI production. If, say, some christian conservatives want to start a user-funded program called Theocracy Now and do daily reporting centered around why we need a theocratic style of government, then there's nothing stopping them from doing that. Or if a group of economic conservatives want to start a program called Oligarchy Now, that too can be done. So there's nothing stopping that from happening. Please note that Democracy Now and its employees are not in fact employees of NPR or PRI.

Nov. 05 2011 08:59 PM

Public radio does seem to have a concern over gender and racial diversity. And so public radio features the voices of almost innumerable women and minorities.

Does public radio have any concern over the ideological diversity of its programs, producers, staff and program hosts?

Is there a conservative corollary to "Democracy Now!"? ("Democracy Now!" is admittedly a production of Pacifica, not NPR or PRI. Still, it is "public radio, linked on the NPR website, and heard on hundreds of NPR-affiliate stations. And assuredly, "Democracy Now!" is only the most obvious example of the left-linkage with public radio. Gradations exist, to include two of public radio's most iconic voices, Terry Gross and Ira Glass.) If public radio's staff were free to transparently air their personal veiws, would we find any conservative voices?

Nov. 05 2011 11:16 AM
clopha deshotel from bridgeport ct

Very good interview. Business model gurus need to read the transcript of this story.

Nov. 05 2011 07:01 AM

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