Sunday, October 24, 2010

The NPR Brand

What is the word that comes to mind when one thinks of National Public Radio?

One word: liberal.

Now, I don't think that's a bad thing; it just is. No journalistic outfit is free of bias. They are made up of humans who have certain viewpoints and that means that news organizations tend to have a certain view of the world.

In what could be the best piece of writing on the NPR/Juan Williams affair, Conor Freidersdorf calls a New York Times reporter, and by extension, NPR for not admiting that they have a certain view of the world:
NPR and Fox News are actually similar in some of the ways that Mr. Stetler says they’re different. Both media organizations broadcast a mix of coverage, some of which is labeled news and other coverage it labels opinion. At both places, the line between these two styles of broadcast are a lot muddier than management likes to acknowledge. The business models of both organizations depend on catering to the sensibilities of people with a certain world view. And I am not just talking about ideology when I say that.

Despite identifying as a right-leaning independent with conservative and libertarian sympathies, NPR is much more my style than is Fox News. Sometimes when I listen to the radio network, I’m attune to the ideologically liberal assumptions that inform its coverage. But more than a political ideology, I’d say NPR’s sensibility is informed by a sort of urban cosmopolitanism and a commitment to airing a diversity of viewpoints — a commitment that is certainly executed imperfectly at times, but that is nevertheless noticeable in the coverage that is presented. I also think there are people doing reporting at NPR who try their best to give facts without bias, and believe that’s what their superiors want them to do. There are times when I think NPR coverage doesn’t do justice to conservative insights, but there are other times when I think they’ve done their best to present strong arguments with which a majority of their audience will disagree.
Like Conor, I tend to have some conservative and libertarian leanings, so there are times I notice that NPR doesn't do justice to a story about conservatives. That said, I think they try. But for me, it's pretty obvious that there is NPR has a certain cosmopolitian liberal view of the world. Now, being someone who lives in a cosmo city like Minneapolis, I'm okay with it. I don't always agree, but I'm probably not their general audience.

But one of the reasons that I like NPR is that even though they want to pretend that they have no opinion on matters, they do strive to be inclusive as best they can. That has gotten the network in trouble, with liberal listeners getting steamed, as they did a year ago, when NPR did a story on a speech given by former Vice President Dick Cheney criticizing the President.

On the other side, Fox News doesn't pretend that it's above the fray. They cater to Red America with what many consider an alternative to the "liberal media." In some ways, I like that Fox doesn't try to live in the fantasy land of objectivity, but because it is trying to placate conservatives with red meat, it doesn't do a good job at all at presenting the other side. Liberals are carictures, not real people. Fox basically acts like a very partisan blog that affirms one's views.

At the end of the day, NPR is as much a brand as it is a new source. It has a specific audience that it caters to as much as Fox caters to a specific audience.

What happened this week is that NPR had to own up to its brand after trying to pretend it didn't exist.

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