National Public Radio Segregates Republicans, Democrats

With its June 30 edition, the National Public Radio offering Talk of the Nation launched a new series entitled "Issues Monday." According to the program's web page, "advisers from each campaign can join the program in the coming weeks to discuss their candidate's policies on Iraq, energy, immigration and other issues." A worthy concept, and the portions of the first edition I caught, featuring Douglas Holtz-Eakin, senior policy adviser for John McCain, and Daniel Tarullo, senior economic adviser for Barack Obama, seemed promising. Host Neal Conan worked hard to prevent his guests from sniping at each other, encouraging them instead to actually answer questions posed by listeners as opposed to simply posturing. Problem was, the callers were separated by ideology -- literally. Conan instructed Republicans to phone one line, Democrats another.

Likely one of the reasons behind this decision was to make certain that each philosophy was evenly represented; producers could choose the same number of questions from each line. But segregating callers by party affiliation doesn't guarantee equity -- and it sends precisely the wrong message about NPR's willingness to consider all things, as the title of its signature afternoon show promises to do.

In March, the Pew Research Center published a report about registered voters and how they label themselves politically. The authors led with the finding that fewer folks were calling themselves Republicans at that time, but just as important was the overall breakdown of data supplied by respondents. Of the 5,566 folks quizzed, 36 percent called themselves Democrats and 27 percent pledged fealty to the Republican ideal. That left 37 percent, or a plurality of the total, claiming no party identification whatsoever -- and even though 15 percent overall leaned Democratic, and 10 percent tilted toward the Republicans, 12 percent said they didn't regularly favor either party.

Should Talk of the Nation create a third line, for independents? Hardly. Simply let everyone call on the same line and assign a staffer to try to be as fair as possible. Of course, some monitoring group could come forward later and argue that the majority of the questions were liberal, for instance. But that could happen with the separate phone lines, too: Just because someone calls on the Republican line doesn't mean he or she isn't a masquerading Dem trying to ask a question in a tricky manner. Worst of all, though, the current set-up potentially excludes more than a third of audience.

Sounds biased to me. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts