Skip to main content

The Real Bias at NPR: Story Selection

National Review

April 21, 2024

Concern about media bias — specifically politically liberal bias — has moved center stage thanks to the cri de coeur by National Public Radio’s Uri Berliner in the Free Press. The network’s business editor, who resigned in the aftermath of his speaking truth to power, wrote that “politics intruded” on a wide variety of coverage, from Covid to “Russiagate,” connecting what he regards as the network’s movement to the Left to the fact that he could identify exactly zero registered Republicans in its D.C. newsroom.

As concerning as the treatment of specific topics may be, however, criticism of NPR should not be understood to be a problem of political bias. As anyone who has been involved in daily journalism — I once served as the assignment editor for a nightly public-television news program — the decisions involve more than specific personalities. The key to understanding media bias, including that of NPR, is what the sociologist Herbert J. Gans studied in his landmark 1980 book Deciding What’s News: story selection.

Quite simply, the “news,” as Gans helps us understand, is not a self-evident set of events about which there is consensus-required “coverage.” Instead, he writes, “journalist(s), being unable to report everything that happened in America, must select some actor and activities from the many millions they could choose.”

When Gans did his study of television network news — at the time, there were only three half-hour network newscasts — he found little variety in story selection. With the rise of a profusion of media outlets, from cable TV to Substack columns, which target distinct audiences, that is no longer the case. Instead, we see, and Berliner describes, sharply different emphases by individual news outlets as to what the news should be. By extension, their deciding what’s important to emphasize, to cover, is a means of influencing what issues are at the center of our politics. This is how NPR has come to understand its taxpayer-supported mission.

On any given day, the stories of NPR and those, for instance, of Fox News can seem to be reports from different Americas. For NPR, it may be the Arizona court decision on abortion “rights.” Fox would be more likely to lead with its correspondent on the southern border. Immigration is a Fox issue; transgender rights are an NPR issue. Fox is more likely to emphasize big-city crime; NPR racial injustice. Indeed, it lists “climate” and “race” as news sections on its website. Moreover, the same events can be reported with sharply different emphases. The aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the occasion, in most quarters, for the coverage of protests against police brutality. But it also led to coverage (in USA Today) of riotous behaviors that robbed entrepreneurs of their small businesses, destroyed by looting.

As Berliner points out, some takes on events — such as the possible “lab leak” origin of Covid — can become “radioactive.” All such decisions as to what to cover and what about it to emphasize are effectively efforts to set the national cultural and political agenda. This is the real media bias.

The press has always done this, to some extent. When his newspaper artist Frederic Remington, in a dispatch from Cuba in 1897, told William Randolph Hearst that a Spanish-American war was unlikely, Hearst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Privately owned media outlets today remain within their rights to promote what they deem most important. This is what MSNBC and CNN, as well as Fox, are doing. But National Public Radio and its television cousin, PBS NewsHour, have a different charge. They are taxpayer-supported — and that is crucial. NPR gets only a small amount of direct federal support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (where I served as a board member from 2013 to 2018) but a great deal from individual stations, which themselves rely on federal support to pay for public radio programming. This government involvement means that NPR must do much more than, per Berliner, “present the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the US population” in what is effectively an effort to recruit others into that segment.

With more than 1,000 local public radio stations from which to draw, a better NPR would have its ear to the ground across the country — searching out the small-town and big-city stories that would provide us the sense and sensibility of the broadest possible range of Americans. This should go beyond person-on-the-street interviews about politics. It should be a source for a range of revealing stories — about zoning, religion, local sports, policing, and much more. At a time when local journalism is dying, and newspapers across the country are shuttering their presses, that sort of public broadcasting service would be more important than ever. Local stories, what’s more, are not just local. Pennsylvania’s natural-gas industry, for example, and the debate over its environmental effects, may tilt the presidential election.

America is a cornucopia of fascinating and telling stories that should engage journalists — who should be curious, not commanding. Unless they can serve a broad cultural and geographic cross-section of the nation, NPR and PBS don’t merit taxpayer support. Congressional hearings to evaluate the case for that support, like those recently that involved university presidents, would be a good idea.