An analysis of NPR campaign coverage

The morning after I flew to Minnesota in 1992 and set foot on its soil for the first time, I turned on the radio to hear more of this network that had flown me out in the interest of maybe hiring me, and I heard one of the most insightful ideas I’ve ever heard in political coverage.

Four MPR reporters had “embedded” themselves with a cross-section of Minnesota voters, and did so early enough in the process — I came out in March — that they could track the thought process by which the voters made their decision. We learned plenty about their lives — from the suburbs, the city, the farm and the Iron Range.

By Election Day, we knew them all.

“This,” I remembered thinking, “is public radio.”

And I’ve not heard anything quite like it since, unforgivable since a few years later, I was running MPR’s political unit.

During the recent presidential campaign, NPR provided a segment on its Morning Edition broadcast called “Divided States”, in which individual voters got the opportunity to explain why they supported one candidate or the other.

That they did so was quite often the most common complaint about political coverage, which is a bit ironic because exit polls and political scientists have claimed — and I think appropriately so — that a big reason for Donald Trump’s election was that people felt they weren’t being listened to.

Elizabeth Jensen, NPR’s excellent ombudsman, has heard this, too, and writes about it this week in wrapping up her monitoring of how NPR covered the election.

Those interviews, while equally balanced between the two major candidates, upset many, many listeners. I had concerns about the voter interviews, too, because on some occasions the speakers were not called out on their incorrect facts, as I wrote previously.

But I didn’t object to hearing from the voters themselves; voters often make their decisions based on complicated reasoning, or for reasons that others will find objectionable. As Edith Chapin, NPR’s executive editor, told me, “We put them on because they are real people and they have real views.”

That said, it is clear that some in NPR’s audience believe that respectful listening to folks, which is how the NPR newsroom refers to these interviews, is unacceptable. More specifically, they are concerned that when NPR airs interviews with people who hold what they believe are racist or misogynistic or xenophobic views, it is “normalizing” those opinions.

This isn’t an issue that will go away, nor will everyone find common ground. Perhaps NPR could frame the interviews differently, with an acknowledgment that they are just individual voices in the wide spectrum of voices.

But I believe it’s possible to listen to someone with whom you disagree and not hear the interview or news report as an endorsement of his or her views. NPR’s stated purpose in its campaign journalism is to give listeners and readers the information that they need to make civic decisions and to understand the broad forces at work in society — not simply to confirm what they’ve already decided.

In my opinion, NPR did a good job reflecting many of the concerns from Trump country, in the vox pop interviews and in reported pieces, including interviews with Trump voters in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio (among many others). There were also interviews with prominent supporters such as Ralph Reed, who seemed to speak for many in explaining why they would not be deterred from voting for Trump despite reports about his past bragging about behavior that would equate to sexual assault (which he later denied he had actually done).

In public radio, “politicians and pointyheads” tend to dominate. So it can be jarring to hear from people who are neither. Thus the term public radio.

There were some flaws in how NPR covered the campaign, sure, but it would be unfortunate if people walk away from the notion that hearing from people living their lives is something requiring apology.

Jensen also hits the one point of election coverage that isn’t getting anywhere near the attention it should: Why do policy stories get lost in the noise? And why didn’t political reporters nationwide do the stories they’re all doing now during the campaign itself?

As one public radio journalist pointed out to me, this story about the candidates’ plans epitomized the challenge, not just for NPR but for all media:

“There’s a problem Trump continues to create for himself: These policy proposals are often lost in the headlines created when Trump dwells on grievances against his perceived enemies in the media, government and other “elite” power structures.

Take Trump’s recent speech in Gettysburg, Pa., which was billed as the rollout of his agenda for the first 100 days of a Trump administration. Trump began the speech by promising to bring legal action against women who have accused him of sexual assault and harassment. This new threat — and not the repackaged proposals he had spoken about before — became the day’s news.” But it’s only the day’s news for NPR if NPR lets it be.

Which brings me to one other point. One sure way for a newsroom to break free from the “story of the day” is to set the agenda itself, through enterprise reporting. The Washington Post did that brilliantly this election cycle, with David Fahrenthold’s dogged investigation into Trump’s charitable contributions.

NPR did interview Fahrenthold on the air, and reported on other organizations’ reporting, including the Trump tax documents that were leaked to The New York Times. But it did relatively little of its own enterprise reporting (one exception was David Folkenflik’s examination of Clinton’s media strategy).

Jensen asked around and got various answers about why there wasn’t more enterprise reporting. Extra money wasn’t put into the political coverage budget, for example.

“Whether there was an appetite at NPR for such original campaign reporting is unclear to me,” she said, a rather frightening observation, indeed.

But NPR did a lot of things right during the coverage and she rightly points it out in great detail. Her column should be read top to bottom.

  • rallysocks

    //During the recent presidential campaign, NPR provided a segment on its Morning Edition broadcast called “Divided States”, in which individual voters got the opportunity to explain why they supported one candidate or the other.//

    As much as it was frustrating to hear sometimes, I actually looked forward to these segments. It was fascinating to me to hear their reasoning.

    //More specifically, they are concerned that when NPR airs interviews with people who hold what they believe are racist or misogynistic or xenophobic views, it is “normalizing” those opinions.//

    I don’t think it normalized it at all. After all, how can you know these odious views are still out there unless you hear them?

    • Mecum

      And I am fascinated by the reasoning of many people on the left (much of NPR’s listening audience) who believe that it is their given right to determine what is a “racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic view”. Rallysocks and many others label these views them all as “odious”, yet many people on the right (and in rural areas as well) are tired of having their views judged, labeled, and tainted by those who believe that they are in the “know”. Most of these people believe that you judge someone by their behavior and not the color of their skin; however, in our completely PC world, if you call out behavior and you happen to be talking about a person of color – you are a racist.

      • Sam M

        Frank Bruni put it well the other day in the NYTimes.

        “Liberals miss this by being illiberal. They shame not just the racists and sexists who deserve it but all who disagree. A 64-year-old Southern woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.”

        • I liked his observation that inexperience is now an asset.

          Boy, there’s an interesting observation.

          • Sam M

            Very millennial.

          • Rob

            It’s Orwell’ s “1984” all over again.

      • Well , people obviously have the right to look at something and determining whether it’s a duck or not a duck.

        I guess part of the answer lies in the individual definition of what is a “racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic view”.

        I think it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to suggest that whatever a particular candidate was saying didn’t have some appeal to racists.

        Unless, of course, you don’t believe the KKK is racist. I happen to, but that’s just me.

        Does that make all Trump supporters racist? Nope. But it doesn’t make the racists not racists.

        • Khatti

          With MPR’s clientele I assume I will be considered a racist (and sexist, and homophobe) no matter what I say. So I would like to go to a question that fascinates me as a racist and sexist and homophobe: what would you like to see done about–or possibly to–me? I’m curious to know if your folks are ready to move beyond scoldings and breast-beatings into genuine head-banging. Is this selfish and self-centered on my part? Yup! I doubt though that being concerned for my welfare makes me different from everyone else on planet Earth.

          • If you’re saying you actually ARE a racist, sexist and homophobe then what I would like to see done about you is for you not to be.

            I also would like you to consider that some people who the “MPR clientele ” (yes, always start a discussion with a veiled pejorative) would consider racist , sexist, and homophobic ARE indeed racist, sexist and homophobic.

            At the same time, I would like others to consider that not everyone they think are racist, sexist, and homophobic actually are.

            Is that a good enough answer or should we just jump to calling each other libtards and racist hicks?

            Beyond that, i really don’t understand the point of your personal observation.

            “Move beyond the scoldings and breast beatings”

            About what?

            About racism? About homophobia? About misogyny?

            What would moving “beyond” that look like? Indifference? Acceptance?

          • Khatti

            Oh come now. People on the Left worry about the return of Hitler, why am I unentitled to worry about the return of Robespierre? When Michael Caputo ran a discussion site I would ask people how much in fines or time in a jail or institution they would be willing to hand out to adversaries in order to further their agenda. I haven’t seen any reason lately why that question is illegitimate.

          • I don’t have a response to that because I Don’t see anything there that appears to be a response to me. I did pose some questions but I Don’t see anywhere where I said you don’t have a right to feel anything you are pleased to feel. It’s not something I’m that interested in one way or another.

            I also never said your question was illegitimate which is why I attempted to sincerely answer it.

            I’ll try another answer then. What should be done to you? I don’t really care.

          • Mecum

            You see Khatti, in the world that these Bob’s live in you are not entitled to your own views. Bob C says if you hold views that he or others define as racist, homophobic, or mysoginistic then it would be better if you wouldn’t hold those views. It’s very close to Hillary stating that the “deplorables” are irredeemable. For Bob H, he just wants to always be the one who sets the standard, so if you don’t conform, he will label you. For Bob and Bob and many like them in the MPR audience, those terms have meanings and application that they get to set and interpret. As an example, take the label of homophobic..if a person is opposed to gay marriage, then my guess would be that Bob and Bob would label that person as a homophobe. Donald Trump believes that illegal immigration should be stopped and that some of the illegal immigrants that are here have committed crimes while they are here and he’s labeled as a racist by everyone in the media and on the left. Pass a law in North Carolina that says boys should use the boys bathroom and watch how fast the media, sports elites, the ncaa, and corporations go on that attack against the State.

          • Jerry

            Why not continue on that vein? If youthink your children shouldn’t go to the same schools as African Americans, eat at the same lunch counters, we will call you racist.

            You can have any beliefs you want. Nobody can control your thoughts. What you can’t do is use your beliefs to do deny rights to others that you enjoy. That is the essence of discrimination. I shouldn’t think we should have to have this discussion in the 21st century.

          • It you’re criticizing the notion that racism, itself, is described as deplorable, should you not just come right out and say it?

          • Mecum

            And you’ve hit on the real issue right there. Racism was not described as “deplorable”, rather the people all grouped together as Trump supporters were called deplorable. Explain to me how grouping people together in massively large blocks and labeling them is any different than racism?

          • Right, I’m fully aware of what Secy. Clinton said and she was wrong to offer a comment that could be interpreted as saying all Trump supporters were deplorable.

            As I’ve already pointed out, I think it’s a mistake to say if you supported Trump you are by definition “racist.”


            What *I* said in response to Khatti’s hypothetical self-description as a racist and in response to his question about what I want done about that hypothetical (I presume) fact, is I would hope people wouldn’t be racist and I think we can all agree that racism exists in our country, can we not?

            To the suggestion that I would desire people not be racist , you replied:

            Bob C says if you hold views that he or others define as racist, homophobic, or mysoginistic then it would be better if you wouldn’t hold those views. It’s very close to Hillary stating that the “deplorables” are irredeemable.

            So what I am asking you is whether racism as commonly defined is deplorable or not? I happen to think it is, which is exactly what I said in response to Khatti’s self described racism, and I would wish people who held racist views (under the definition) would not hold those views. The concept of white supremacy, for example.

            Do you find racism deplorable or do you not?

          • Mecum

            Bob, what i have been saying is for you to define racism. People define racism using whatever definition they choose and then throw out the labels. We can definitely agree that racism exists, but I will bet that your definition (and who it applies to) would be far different than mine. The other issue related to racism that we will likely disagree on, is the notion of whether racism is a one-way or two-way street. I believe all people are capable of discrimination and racism, others believe you can’t be a racist unless you are white.

          • Well I’ve said already that white supremacy is racism, but let’s use the dictionary term and see if we have any areas of agreement:

            The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

            prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

            Whether it’s a one-way or two-way street is pretty immaterial to me in terms of a definition of racism. I’m aware, of course, that some people believe that people of color cannot, by definition, be racist. I think that’s a debatable point but I also think jumping right to that before defining what racism is is a backwards approach to answering the question that Khatti (who has disappeared from the discussion for the moment) had asked in his hypothetical.

            And of course, my answer is the same, that people shouldn’t have racist views by whatever definition we agree on.

            You haven’t answered the subsequent question on why you find that the same as Clinton calling people deplorable and, more important, whether you think racism, itself, is deplorable.

            I think you should do that, obviously, to make more clear what exactly the point is in your opposition to my response to Khatti’s hypothetical in which he admits he’s a racist.

          • krisbrowne42

            On Deplorable – Anyone willing to overlook the fairly obvious decay of other peoples’ civil rights and freedoms in favor of their own financial well-being counts – And Germany in the 30s provides a model of how a politician might put that to use.

          • Mecum

            Ahhh, there’s that reference to Hitler again. That’s a really interesting reference since only one of the candidates in this past election called an entire group of people deplorable and that they were irredeemable. That is almost exactly what Hitler thought about Jews, Gays, the Disabled, and anyone else he thought fit his definition.

          • Mecum

            I completely agree with that definition of racism; however, where disagreements come in would start with the term “all”. What if a person observes on a social media post that a group of black protesters who were looting a store were acting like “animals” or “thugs”. What if a person believes that “some” illegal immigrants are committing crimes in our country? What if a person believes that not all Muslims are terrorists, but lately all terrorists have been Muslims? In my experience, that person will be immediately labeled as a racist. And that has been my point in responding to a number of the posters on this thread. There is no common agreement about what is and what is not racism and because it is such a powerful weapon against opposing views it is used with impunity to censure others’ voices.

          • You haven’t answered my questions in regards to your comment characterizing my response to Khatti’s question.

            Do you think racism — use the definition above as I believe Khatti was in his hypothetical — is deplorable?

            Do you disagree that it’s preferable that people who are racist, under that definition — white supremacists, for example — not hold those views?

          • Mecum

            “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
            prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

            If you are asking me personally, it’s very simple. I believe that ALL forms of discrimination based on race, sex, creed, sexual orientation, or religion are wrong. Any racial discrimination is deplorable, and should be called out, not just when the offender is white.

            Now it’s your turn to answer some questions. Are racial quotas in hiring, college admissions, and contracting forms of racial discrimination and as such are they deplorable?

            The Democratic nominee for POTUS, called an entire group of people “deplorable” and that they are “irredeemable” which you have criticized her for. However, I didn’t hear anybody in the media calling her a racist. Is Hillary Clinton a racist for holding those views?

          • I didn’t ask you about discrimination, I asked you specifically about racism and, in particular, you opposition to my statement to Khatti’s hypothetic that I would hope that people who hold racist views didn’t hold them.

            Do you believe that racists — by the definition provided and Khatti’s assumption — should hold racist views and if you do not, then what is your objection to the statement that I would prefer he not hold racist views?

          • Rob

            I’ve got an extra ” get out of jail free” card if you’re interested…

          • TEA

            Nothing needs to be done about it. You can have all those views. You’re protected by the constitution to have them, but be prepared to be confronted, challenged, and called out. The problem is when those views affect the constitutional rights of those you have those views against. I haven’t seen someone stop you from your views. You’ve only been called out. Now as soon as someone ‘bangs your head in’ they’ve violated your “self” and that’s obviously illegal. We’ve seen through generations of the American experiment freedoms violated and death due to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation. I guess I assume you’ve never suffered under oppression due to these, but maybe I’m wrong.

          • Mecum

            I can’t agree with your premise TEA. People lose jobs, are openly discriminated against, and most recently have had the IRS harassing them when their views didn’t “conform”.

          • JamieHX

            What is your evidence of the IRS harassing people “when their views didn’t conform”?

          • Mecum

            You may want to Google IRS scandal and read about how the IRS has acknowledged that they targeted certain conservative groups under Lois Lerner.

          • JamieHX

            The IRS targeted BOTH conservative and liberal groups. It’s just that there were a lot more conservative than liberal groups trying to get past the IRS. That hasn’t been reported very widely because of the laziness and echo-chamberiness of the news media. And also because of the backlash caused by conservatives’ campaign to de-legitimize the so-called “liberal media.”

          • TEA

            If that’s the case then it is discrimination. Post factual examples, or recent case law, prosecution’s, civil law complaints against the IRS. I’m not looking for an argument.

          • Mecum

            You must either be in denial or are unaware of the IRS investigations that have been ongoing over the past 4 years?

            In early May 2013, the Treasury Inspector General for Tax
            Administration released an audit report confirming that the IRS used
            inappropriate criteria to identify potential political cases, including
            organizations with Tea Party in their names.[7]

            On May 10, in advance of the public release of the audit findings, Director of the IRS Exempt Organizations division Lois Lerner
            answered what was later revealed to be a planted question by stating
            that the IRS was “apologetic” for what she termed “absolutely
            inappropriate” actions.[71]
            (Lerner’s superior, then-Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, later
            testified to Congress that he had discussed with Lerner how she was to
            make the revelation and apology using a planted question at a meeting of
            the American Bar Association rather than during an appearance two days earlier before the House Ways & Means Committee in Congress.)[72]
            She asserted that the extra scrutiny had not been centrally planned and
            had been done by lower-level “front line people” in the Cincinnati
            Media reports soon revealed that IRS officials in two other regional
            offices had also been involved in scrutinizing conservative groups and
            that selected applicants said that they had been told their applications
            were being overseen by a task force in Washington, D.C.[38]
            The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report showed
            that Lerner herself had been informed of the affair at a meeting that
            she had attended on June 29, 2011.[7][74]

            On May 12, Republican and Democratic lawmakers called for a full investigation of the Internal Revenue Service,[75][76] while White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the IRS’s alleged actions “inappropriate”.[77] On May 13, The Washington Post
            reported that Marcus Owens, head of the IRS department examining
            tax-exempt groups in 1990–1999, said that the IRS routinely categorized
            similar groups that sought the status of social welfare organizations.[78]
            At a May 13 press conference, President Obama called the charges
            “outrageous” if true, and said that anyone found to be responsible for
            such actions should be held accountable.[79][80]
            On May 14, the Inspector General’s audit report was made public.[7]
            President Obama released a statement saying, “The IRS must apply the
            law in a fair and impartial way, and its employees must act with utmost
            integrity. This report shows that some of its employees failed that
            test. I’ve directed Secretary Lew to hold those responsible for these
            failures accountable, and to make sure that each of the Inspector
            General’s recommendations are implemented quickly, so that such conduct
            never happens again. But regardless of how this conduct was allowed to
            take place, the bottom line is, it was wrong.”[81] Attorney General Eric Holder
            announced that he had ordered the Justice Department to begin an
            investigation into whether the activities amounted to criminal behavior.

          • TEA

            I am aware. And it was wrong. Now show the outcomes. Who lost their job? Let’s discuss intelligently instead of lobbing comments like “And thank goodness we have the liberals in the world who know better and can set them straight”. I’m willing to listen are you?

          • Rob

            If you do say racist, sexist and homophobic stuff, I’ll call you out on it. Ready, set, go. And when you do say racist and sexist stuff, I’ll feel bad for your lack of understanding and open-mindedness. Does that work for you?

        • Jerry

          Racists (or homophobes, or misogynists, or whatever) rarely think they are being racist (or whatever), they think they are “telling it like it really is”.

          • Mecum

            And thank goodness we have the liberals in the world who know better and can set them straight.

          • Jerry

            Good to know someone is fighting the good fight to defend racism

          • Rob

            I never bother setting people straight. As my dear sainted mother used to say, “You can’t set someone straight who doesn’t get that they’re bent.”

        • Mecum

          Bob…using that logic would say that because something Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama has said had appeal for Louis Farrakhan that they should somehow bear responsibility for that. That logic doesn’t hold water.

      • Rob

        “Moving on someone like a bitch” and “I grab em by the pussy” don’t leave a lot of room for debate regarding whether they’re misogynistic comments. And if you have the same perspectiveus, I don’t care whether you feel labeled or not.

  • krisbrowne42

    What I was frustrated by, throughout the election coverage, was the galling lack of fact-checking until it was too late…

    Some things are clearly opinions, and when that’s obvious those should be left for people to voice… But when people, whether the “vox pop” from the above quote or the candidates themselves, are flat out, demonstrably wrong, it NEEDS to be called out lest the details get lost forever. From day one, every interview or debate should’ve had that built in, as soon as people realized that this wasn’t “politics as usual”.

    I’m at a loss for how to feel about what Trump is going to most news organizations… Because frankly, if anyone else had made the statements he did, from day one of his campaign, they would’ve been given a one-off report about the ramblings of a crackpot and the world would have moved on… But by treating him like a legitimate candidate, the media made him one, despite his behavior, or perhaps because of his behavior and how it brought in viewers/listeners.

    • Sam M

      I don’t know that fact checking does that much good especially when the fact checker is the “main stream” media. I do think there was plenty of fact checking but most don’t want to take the time to go through it.

  • Mike Worcester

    //Why do policy stories get lost in the noise? And why didn’t political
    reporters nationwide do the stories they’re all doing now during the
    campaign itself?

    My casual observation/thought on that question? It’s easier to do the non-policy pieces because they require less effort. This is not to say that doing the vox pop type pieces are a lazy way out of reporting. Far from it. But from a time management perspective, is it just easier and more efficient to tape people’s thoughts and then rebroadcast them?

    Do we also need to consider the distinct possibility that listeners — of all media types — would simply rather hear people relay opinions, whether they are based on a sound premise or not, than listen to in-depth analyses of for example, how China views the issue of climate change? One of the reasons I listen to NPR or the BBC or the CBC is that they do just that. The explore complex issues. But to many listeners, that’s boring and requires too much time.

    Final question – does my making the above statement make me some sort of cultural elite? Just because I want to hear details about major issues make me some sort of snob? I’d like to think not.

  • Anna

    I’ve gotten to the discussion late.

    If you read the latest breaking stories over the last couple of days, some of them are quite alarming.

    The mayor of a small town west of Charleston, West Virginia was forced to resign because of her response to what I can only call an ignorant, insulting, backward, racially motivated Facebook post about Michelle Obama.

    When I read the comment that was posted on Facebook, I got the opinion that West Virginia had not progressed in its educational level much past the 1930’s.

    It could only come from someone with a fierce hatred for blacks that she has kept buried for years because the majority of her acquaintances had moved past hating other people simply because their skin was the wrong color making them socially and intellectually inferior to the superior white race.

    The bad thing about Facebook is that ignorant, backward posts like the one mentioned above go around the world in a nanosecond and once they are out of the Pandora’s box the damage cannot be undone.

    The woman who resigned from her post will have to explain to any future employer why she left her job. It’s like being convicted of a felony without the benefit of a trial. It will follow her for the rest of her days and the same goes for the woman who posted the original comment.

    Donald Trump’s main driving force is he wants to be liked and admired by EVERYONE which explains much of his reversals of opinion on a daily, sometimes hourly basis on Twitter and in the media.

    He learned this chameleon behavior from someone, likely his parents because the old saying is “Children learn what they live.”

    He is surrounding himself with “yes” men who will agree with everything he says and build his super heated ego. Putting his son-in-law on the transition team is a classic case of nepotism. Unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t ban the practice in government and perhaps it should.

    Loyalty is all fine and good but as another post about Melvin Laird points out, “follow the leader” can be reckless and even dangerous. We didn’t know about Richard Nixon’s madman behavior because there wasn’t an Internet and a 24/7 news cycle. If there had been, he would have been impeached, long before Watergate.

    It remains to be seen if Trump’s reversal of opinion on what he hammered on in the campaign sticks or he becomes a dictator with a narcissistic bent that many of us fear.

    • jon

      There are nepotism laws for the federal government but I don’t believe the transition team is part of the government…