Amid this especially bitter campaign season, it’s not surprising that the issue of media bias has again arisen. Although Donald Trump’s motives in raising the issue may well be based on prospective sour grapes about the likely election outcome, many Americans are, in fact, deeply skeptical about the fairness of the press. This past July, the Pew Research Center found that only 18 percent of Americans trust the information they get from national news organizations — including just 15 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of independents. The 27 percent figure for Democrats is not notably high, either.
As citizens, voters have cause to be concerned about the character of media content. But they also have reason to be concerned because they, as taxpayers, are media investors. Each year, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, of whose board of directors I’m a member, distributes a $445 million federal appropriation to “public media,” including, directly and indirectly, to National Public Radio. Public-broadcasting programming extends far beyond NPR, of course — but, as a news source, public radio is public broadcasting’s most important component. Indeed, NPR is, in many ways, among today’s most wide-reaching and robust “fact-based” news-gathering organizations. (Yes, that’s a term.) It is impressive in any number of ways — including its sheer reach. NPR’s programming airs on 1076 stations and draws on 17 international and 16 domestic bureaus. Weekly listenership totals some 36 million. And those who do listen to it, largely trust it: Pew has found NPR-listeners are three times as likely to trust the network as non-listeners.
That overall favorable view, however, masks a significant problem: NPR’s popularity (arguably a reflection of the extent of which it is trusted) varies significantly by region — notwithstanding the policy goal of taxpayer support for a national program service. Indeed, its popularity divides roughly along red-state/blue-state and economic lines. Notably, of the ten highest-rated NPR stations, according to publicly available ratings data, only one, Raleigh-Durham, is located below the Mason-Dixon line; none can be found in a clearly red state. (The top markets are Washington, D.C., Raleigh-Durham, Boston, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, San Francisco, Denver, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia).
At the same time, public-radio programming — whose mission must be an overall informed citizenry — attracts only a small slice of the body politic: Seventy percent of listeners are college graduates; listeners are 74 percent more likely than average to earn more than $100,000 in household income. Expanding the range of its popularity should be a prime NPR goal — not, of course, for commercial reasons, but as an indicator that it has the trust of the American public at large as a steward of public funds.
NPR’s popularity (arguably a reflection of the extent of which it is trusted) varies significantly by region.
This is not a call for NPR or its local affiliates to add more commentators of various political stripes. There is plenty of political commentary available on cable news and talk radio. In increasingly scarce supply, however, is high-quality, reporting-based local journalism — and public radio is actually in good position to win audience trust by providing more of it. The surprise story of the last decade in public radio has been the rise of serious local-news operations with strong community followings and financial support. In New York City, the public-radio station WNYC commands a greater audience share than two commercial competitors combined. Local-news operations in Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and Cleveland similarly have large local followings; crucially, as well, their work is, at times, included in NPR’s national news programming. Similarly popular local public-radio news is rarer in the regions where NPR as a whole is less popular — but this, too, is beginning to change. Growing news organizations can be found in Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, and Atlanta. At a time when local newspapers staffs are shrinking, local public-radio stations increasingly understand that journalism is their best route to serving their communities.
NPR central in Washington (where All Things Considered and Morning Edition are produced) can begin to serve a wider audience by including in its own programming more original journalism bubbling up from its affiliates. This means doing more than calling on a local station when there’s a hurricane or terrorist attack. It means looking to them for stories that are distinct to that city or region — but important for the nation as a whole to know about, as well. In my own view, this sort of diversity in storytelling will do a lot to address long-standing grumbling about what’s said to be NPR’s liberal bias. Stories told empathetically and contextually, drawing on local concerns, can add greatly to the national dialogue. Think of the out-of-work coal miner whose situation makes clear the tradeoffs involved with changing energy policy; the mega-church that mounts efforts to help promote marriage — and doesn’t just oppose gay marriage.
This does not mean that a local public-radio station should have a political agenda — only that its reporting should reflect what’s going on in the places they serve. The same sort of national–local station partnerships can also enrich public television’s flagship news program, the nightly PBS News Hour. Some of this work has, in fact, been ongoing — though there is less local journalism on public television than on public radio. NPR itself can help, too, by opening more bureaus in a wider range of American cities. Of the network’s 16 domestic bureaus, only four are below the Mason-Dixon line; while NPR maintains studios in Washington and Los Angeles; there is no NPR South.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has bet increasingly on local journalism, directing funds, for instance, to local and regional journalism collaboratives among stations. But the heavy lifting necessary to change the profile of public-media journalism must be built on what local stations themselves do — raising private, local money to create news programming that can complement and feed NPR’s national offerings.
Of course, there are those who would argue that all of this should be done privately — and that the era of federal radio and television funding should end. As a practical, not a theoretical, matter, this is unlikely. Individual stations — which are locally chartered independent nonprofits — would not go away even if federal funding did; indeed, they might come to rely on left-of-center funding sources. And there’s an argument for mending, not ending, the public-media system. Congress should, perhaps, consider conditioning financial support on NPR — and PBS — demonstrating that they reach a truly diverse range of Americans.
Across the country, newspapers’ state-house and city-hall bureaus and reporting staffs are being cut. As things stand, public media — especially its radio-news service — has an important role to play in filling this gap. In doing so, our public-media must draw on the lively localism that has always made America great — and, in the process, expand its reach.
— Howard Husock, the vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of America’s Trillion-Dollar Housing Mistake. He is a Republican member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, appointed by President Obama.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article said the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s “public media” appropriation was $450 million. CPB distributes $445 million.