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Peter Hart

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Stinging NPR: James O'Keefe's Big Nothing

Posted: 03/11/11 04:47 PM ET

Right-wing activist James O'Keefe's latest "work" is an undercover video that shows representatives from a fake Muslim charity trying to make a $5 million donation to NPR. The "Muslim" donors-to-be meet with two NPR development officers. In the ensuing conversation, as all the media coverage explains, one of the two--Ron Schiller--expresses critical views of Republicans and the far-right Tea Party.

Schiller is an NPR fundraiser, with no journalistic role there. While it wasn't wise to share his personal views at a lunch, it is the sort of thing that people do all the time. So why does anyone care about this? Because O'Keefe--and countless other right-wing critics--want to show that NPR is a bastion of left-wing propaganda. They can't do that by studying the content of NPR's broadcasts, but they can get a fundraiser to make disparaging comments about Tea Party conservatism- and, in so doing, force out NPR CEO Vivian Schiller.

The political motivation behind the hidden camera sting is clear enough--to spark more discussion about NPR's supposed bias, at a time when Republican politicians are looking to eliminate funding for public media. As an L.A. Times editorial put it (3/11/11):

National Public Radio long has attracted complaints from conservatives that it has a liberal tilt. By seeming to confirm that view, a senior NPR fundraising official has provided the network's critics with undreamed-of ammunition. More than ever, NPR needs to remember its obligation as a recipient of government funds to be balanced and nonpartisan.

This is exactly what O'Keefe and those like him want. But anyone writing about what the video "seems to confirm" should hold themselves to a higher standard. Do the conservative criticisms of NPR's "liberal tilt" have any evidence to back them up?

FAIR's 2004 study of NPR, which looked at 2,334 quoted sources in 804 stories on four leading programs, provides one such examination (Extra!, 5-6/04)--and found nothing like that:

Elite sources dominated NPR's guestlist. These sources--including government officials, professional experts and corporate representatives--accounted for 64 percent of all sources.

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.

And on partisanship:

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.

If NPR's main news shows have a bias, it is toward the elite.

The hidden camera video dwells on NPR's coverage of Israel/Palestine, with the "Muslim" donors cheering "National Palestine Radio" for being critical of Israel. This is a common argument heard from conservatives. So what's the evidence? Seth Ackerman looked at coverage of deaths on either side of the conflict (Extra!, 11-12/01):

During the six-month period studied, NPR reported the deaths of 62 Israelis and 51 Palestinians. While on the surface that may not appear to be hugely lopsided, during the same time period 77 Israelis and 148 Palestinians were killed in the conflict. That means there was an 81 percent likelihood that an Israeli death would be reported on NPR, but only a 34 percent likelihood that a Palestinian death would be.

There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate NPR is not a left-wing outlet: Undercounting anti-war protests, a softball interview with Dick Cheney, distorted framing of the Mideast as being "calm" when only Palestinians are dying, a correspondent urging Israeli "retaliation" against Palestinians, hosting a "liberal media" discussion between conservatives Bernard Goldberg and William McGowan and two mainstream reporters, hosting healthcare "debates" between two former politicians who were both working for the health insurance industry, and allowing far-right bomb thrower David Horowitz to malign progressive historian Howard Zinn in an obituary piece. Just to name a few.

What about NPR's response to the controversy? Bill Moyers and Michael Winship write:

We agree with Joel Meares who, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, expressed the wish that NPR had stood up for themselves and released a statement close to the following:

"Ron Schiller was a fundraiser who no longer works for us. He had nothing to do with our editorial decision making process. And, frankly, our editorial integrity speaks for itself. We've got reporters stationed all over the world, we've won all sorts of prizes, we've got an ombudsman who is committed to examining our editorial operations. If you think our reporting is tainted, or unreliable, that's your opinion, and you're free to express it. And to look for the evidence. But we will not be intimidated by the elaborate undercover hackwork of vindictive political point-scorers who are determined to see NPR fail."

That's our cue. Come on, people: Speak up!

Some of NPR's most prominent reporters and hosts did speak out--and they sent a very different message. In "An Open Letter from Journalists at NPR News," they wrote:

we were appalled by the offensive comments made recently by NPR's now former senior vice president for development. His words violated the basic principles by which we live and work: accuracy and open-mindedness, fairness and respect.

The letter adds, "Those comments have done real damage to NPR."

That is beyond doubt. But the damage is made much worse by a media that treats O'Keefe's "scoop" as if it reveals anything important.

O'Keefe's big "get" is that a fundraiser will tell a prospective donor some of what he thinks he might want to hear. The fact that mainstream media have devoted so much attention to O'Keefe's sting is proof that the corporate media aren't that liberal at all.