On Sept. 30, National Public Radio (NPR) announced, with considerable fanfare, the results of a new poll -- conducted in collaboration with the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health -- that found that the American people feel "profoundly shut out of the current health overhaul debate." Listening to this story, I was reminded of a line from Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
The story, which aired on NPR's Morning Edition, was presented in a fashion that suggested the people's disenfranchisement from critical policy debates, like health care reform, was somewhat surprising -- revelatory in fact. For anyone paying even the most remote attention to grassroots and nationwide efforts to repair this country's broken and dysfunctional health care system, none of this was news.
Rather, this item is just one more indication of the crisis of democracy in this country: a crisis exacerbated by inside-the-beltway journalism practiced by corporate media and so-called public broadcasting.
Without putting too fine a point on it, NPR's lopsided coverage of any number of current events -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Wall Street bailout, and health care reform -- is part of a broader, and rather disturbing trend in U.S. journalism. Scholars refer to this as "source bias": the tendency of news workers to routinely defer to "official sources" in business and government and habitually exclude the voice of everyday people in public policy debates.
Consider NPR's editorial position on legislative efforts, most notably HR 676, U.S. Representative John Conyer's (D-Mich.) bill to enact a single-payer health care system. On July 17, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard defended public radio's sparse coverage of single payer. NPR correspondent, Julie Rovner, told Shepard that single-payer "is not getting a lot of attention from NPR because it's simply not on the table in Congress." Rovner continued, "I think the reason that single-payer is not on the table is because it's too big a change."
"NPR's 'lead reporter' on health care simply echoes the sentiments of politicians opposed to single payer and studiously avoids any discussion of the potential benefits that such a plan might have."
Not once were the particulars of HR 676 ever addressed, let alone evaluated. Instead, NPR's "lead reporter" on health care simply echoes the sentiments of politicians opposed to single payer and studiously avoids any discussion of the potential benefits that such a plan might have for the nation's health and economic security. To borrow David Barsamian's useful phrase, this is a classic example of journalists serving as "stenographers to power."
Indeed, a search of NPR's "new and improved" Web site reveals that remarkably few news stories discuss HR 676 -- also known as the Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act -- in any substantive detail. Typically, when the bill is even mentioned, it is summarily dismissed as a "political non-starter."
This may be the case inside the beltway, where health industry lobbyists have been seeking favors and spending fortunes on campaign contributions to congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle. But across the country, it's a different story: a story that doesn't receive any attention on NPR, PBS or in the corporate media. Indeed, there are dozens of groups, including Physicians for a National Health Program, Healthcare Now!, Mad as Hell Doctors, California Nurses Association, Unions for Single Payer Health Care and Single Payer Action, to name a few, that have been mobilizing for a single-payer system.
This is but one instance of many in which NPR's own reporting contributes to the public's feeling of alienation and disenfranchisement from political processes.
"To borrow David Barsamian's useful phrase, this is a classic example of journalists serving as 'stenographers to power.'"
Case in point: NPR's reporting on the war in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, NPR has devoted significant airtime to the debate in Washington over troop levels in Afghanistan. Here again, the reporting relies exclusively on official sources and focuses exclusively on debates within and between the military and civilian leadership.
In a story from Sept. 30 titled "Can Obama Say No to His Generals in Afghanistan?" NPR correspondent Kevin Whitelaw approached the conflict from this "inside baseball" perspective. Sound bites from administration officials, military and foreign policy experts and others who are part of Obama's "war council" dominated the report.
Three quarters through the story, Whitelaw inserted a brief mention of what the American people think about Afghanistan. "Opinion polls show that U.S. public support for the Afghan war has been dropping steadily." Having duly noted this inconvenient tidbit, Whitelaw concludes, "It won't be easy to sell an escalation after eight years of having American troops on the ground."
Here, public opinion matters only insofar as it may prove difficult to "sell" a particular policy. Despite growing public opposition to the Afghan war, NPR frames the story in terms of disputes and differences of opinion among military and political elites. Public opinion is, at best, an afterthought in these considerations.
Framing the story in this fashion reveals a great deal about how NPR conceives of its audience. By relying exclusively on official sources, NPR treats the American people as little more than spectators to critical public policy debates, rather than as citizens who have a stake in these life and death decisions.
At the end of the day, reporting of this sort is cynical and manipulative. Not only does it serve powerful interests opposed to a more just, and sane, socio-economic order, it serves to cultivate political apathy at a time when we need to be fully engaged in domestic and foreign policy decision-making.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of the recently released Understanding Community Media (Sage 2009). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.