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NPR needs a backbone

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Oh, NPR, won't you please state your game? Are you liberal? Are you neutral? Are your employees secret socialists? Do their screensavers feature slideshows of Noam Chomsky? Do your office Christmas parties serve only free-range eggnog? Do your parking lots offer preferred spaces for vehicles with "Free Tibet" bumper stickers?"

Yes? No? Tell us, NPR!

Was former fundraising executive Ron Schiller repeating the boardroom chitchat when he was caught on tape trashing the "tea party" and clinging to that chestnut about middle Americans clinging to their guns? Did Chief Executive Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron) resign because she had already presided over last year's messy firing of conservative commentator Juan Williams? Or because she knows deep down that Bill O'Reilly's description of NPR as a "totalitarian outfit functioning as an arm of the far left" is totally true and that the genie was out of the bottle? (Most likely a bottle of expensive Malbec.)

Speak up. What's that you say, NPR? You can't answer these questions? You don't want to answer them? You don't, as your own media commentators Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield discussed with Ira Glass last weekend, "have a metric" with which to determine whether your news coverage is slanted?

Here's one: A study conducted in 2004 by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, which found that when you used partisan sources, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than 3 to 1 (regardless of who was in the White House). Incidentally, that study also showed that NPR relied "on the same elite and influential sources that dominate mainstream commercial news and falls short of reflecting the diversity of the American public." Does that sound "liberal" to you?

OK, FAIR is considered a "progressive" source, which means it's probably as helpful to you in this situation as an endorsement from Hollywood. That's why you have to show some self-respect and fight back. You have to point out that as reprehensible as Ron Schiller's comments may have been, they were no worse than the methods of James O'Keefe, the video prankster who set him up. After all, even the Glenn Beck-backed website the Blaze has denounced O'Keefe for releasing an edited version of the Schiller tape that misrepresented much of what was said.

Not that Beck will be calling "Car Talk" for transmission advice anytime soon. "I do have an agenda against NPR. I hate those guys," he reminded his radio listeners. But if he's defending you more than you're defending yourself, you might want to rethink your strategy.

Here's the real problem, NPR. No matter how mainstream your audience is in truth, or how balanced you are in substance, or how many opinions you solicit from average red-state Joes, the prevailing feeling is that your style is unmistakably liberal.

In other words, NPR, you may not be left-leaning, but you're left-seeming.

It's the folksy music between segments (never mind that it's often jazzy or electronic or classical; the effect is folksy). It's the warm, earnest quality of the hosts' and reporters' voices. It's their exotic names — Mandalit del Barco, Lakshmi Singh, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Daniel Zwerdling. Are these tea party names? No, they're soy chai latte names. It's obvious.

Face it, NPR, you could go content-free, relying only on those quirky music snippets and reporters saying their names, and you'd still come across as a granola bar disguised as a radio network.

That's the power of perception, not to mention stereotypes. We think we know what's blue and what's red. Hatchbacks, for example, are liberal, and pickups and sedans, conservative. Macs are blue and PCs are red (kind of ironic given the initials, no?). Cats are liberal and dogs are conservative. Never mind that none of this is true in practice (Rush Limbaugh is a Mac user; there's currently a canine in the Democrat-occupied White House — a gift from Ted Kennedy, no less). As theories go, most people still subscribe, at least a little.

So please, NPR, the only recourse is to tell the truth. Do the reporting, show us the answers. Stop telling us to listen and decide for ourselves. Because you clearly can't rely on the American people for rationality. That folksy music drowns it out.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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