The Elusive Quest for Balance

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Let’s look at a recent column by NPR ombudsmen Jeffrey Dvorkin tallying up guests from think tanks who’ve appeared on NPR shows. Here’s the data, and a bit of his commentary (bold text is mine):

American Enterprise – 59 times

Brookings Institute – 102

Cato Institute – 29

Center for Strategic and Intl. Studies – 39

Heritage Foundation – 20

Hoover Institute – 69

Lexington Institute – 9

Manhattan Institute – 53

There are of course, other think tanks, but these seem to be the ones whose experts are heard most often on NPR. Brookings and CSIS are seen by many in Washington, D.C., as being center to center-left. The others in the above list tend to lean to the right. So NPR has interviewed more think tankers on the right than on the left.

The score to date: Right 239, Left 141.

You see these sorts of tallies all the time, and for all sorts of reasons they always have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Decisions about who’s left or right or center is obviously highly dependent on where the judge stands. (Here’s a blurb from The Nation describing Brookings as “center-right.”) And as the policy debate “center” has shifted rightward, previously staid, neutral institutions have come to be characterized as “left.”

But this one is really interesting: do you see how Dvorkin describes CSIS and Brookings as “center or center-left”—and then all the sudden in the final count they are just plain left? Only calling Brookings left—which a sentence before he essentially described as “center”—could he make the count look remotely fair. Now over at TAPPED, Garance Franke-Ruta suggests that this imbalance was supposed to be corrected by Center for American Progress. Maybe. But the truth of the matter is that if groups like Cato and the AEI get that much air—88 NPR visits combined—we should hear from places as left as the Institute for Policy Studies on a more regular basis. And the last time I remember seeing Phyllis Bennis on any sort of broadcast was on MSNBC’s Donahue in the fall of 2002.


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