NPR Public Editor Wrings Hands Exceedingly Well

Hearing Tucker Carlson back on Morning Edition this morning made me think about how absurd it is that Morning Edition pretends that Cokie Roberts is a liberal or supporter of Hillary Clinton by pairing her with an explicit conservative pundit. He provides fact-free analysis — Donald Trump is polling better than he has in the entire campaign this past weekend? And providing innuendo about “multiple investigations into the Clinton Foundation?” — and Roberts has to defend regardless of what she thinks.

So, I went to NPR to comment and found this early October article from NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen. Jensen does an excellent job of wringing her hands over this problem of falsely equivalent reporting and commentating. What she doesn’t do so well is provide any real sense of what NPR can do about this problem of long-standing. (And what is the point of having a Public Editor if Sarah Gilbert, the Executive Producer of Morning Edition, doesn’t even feel some obligation to respond to a request from NPR’s own Public Editor for comment on the content of the show she produces?!)

The Cokie Roberts segment on Monday mornings has long been a disproportionate wellspring of criticism for Morning Edition because Roberts’ role has been unclear to many listeners for year and the format, seemingly an interview, was actually a set piece. But from this Public Editor article it seems that even Roberts knows that she is being set up in the current format, which forces her to either take the Democratic candidate’s side or let the largely untruthful supporters of Donald Trump have their way. (In a recent segment, Mollie Hemingway suggested that it was OK that Donald Trump was saying the election would be rigged by adopting a falsely equivalent argument describing liberal complaints about conservative media as cavailing against election rigging, which it is not. There was neither time nor inclination — on the part of Roberts or host David Greene, for that matter — to take her to task for that false equivalence.)

Donald Trump causes some of this problem — that Roberts came out against his candidacy for President has meant that she is automatically labeled a non-conservative commentator and therefore needs to be “balanced” — but this type of false equivalence and “he said, she said” reporting style is not a new phenomenon in this election. To take an example from a few years ago, Paul Ryan, then the Republican Chair of the House Budget Committee, proposed a budget that Ryan claimed would not add to the national debt. Independent analysis demonstrated that this claim was false and that a number of other assertions about the budget did not add up. Merely pointing that fact out does not make you a liberal. In a hypothetical case, if two commentators on an NPR program agree that Paul Ryan’s budget does not add up, NPR does not need to tie itself into a pretzel to find someone who has math skills just as bad as Paul Ryan’s to stick up for a budget that makes unreasonable, unsupported assumptions to fill trillion dollar holes.

And this election makes it so obvious: There is no other recent election where so many declared members of a major political party have opposed their party’s candidate with many announcing their intention to vote for and even raise money for the opposing candidate? NPR’s editorial policy probably would require such a GOP’er heard on air to be paired with a Trump supporter for “balance.” In that case, though, who would be taking the side of the consistently higher number of Americans who have identify as Democrats, support liberal and progressive policies, and voted in recent Presidential and Congressional elections for Democrats in larger numbers than Republicans?

This is not a new phenomenon. It is well-recognized and has been much discussed. NPR absolutely should have figured out by now that it needs to push back against this trend of conservative whining about coverage that fairly calls out what has long been winking at intolerance (and is now an outright embrace) and magical math espoused by the Republican Party to task without apologizing for it and certainly without finding ways to put voices that support Republican’s fact-free approach to policy discourse on the air. Hand wringing over this was OK as an initial response 20 years ago when Fox News debuted with the “Fair and Balanced” slogan when their coverage was anything but. In 2016, NPR needs to be standing up to that bullying by conservatives and providing coverage that can stand up to legitimate scrutiny across the spectrum of opinion.