With regular commentators who are 71 percent white men, NPR has its work cut out for it.  

 By Michael Tkaczevski  FAIR  July 13, 2015

A new FAIR study finds that NPR commentary is dominated by white men and almost never directly addresses political issues.

This study reviewed transcripts from January 1 to May 31, 2015, looking at regular commentators—that is, voices who were featured twice or more on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday to present their perspective in monologue form.

The study found 14 regular commentators, whose viewpoints were featured in a total of 106 segments. Of these commentators, 12 were men and two were women (86 percent male); 12 of the commentators (86 percent) were non-Latino whites and two were people of color.

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The women who were regular commentators were Bonny Wolf, who focused on cooking, and Tess Taylor, a poetry critic. The two people of color were Eric Deggans, an African-American writer who critiques TV, and Betto Arcos, a native of Mexico who covers music culture. No women of color were regular commentators.

Of the 106 regular commentary segments, just 4 percent featured one of the female commentators. Twenty percent were by people of color, reflecting Deggans’ frequent appearances on Morning Edition.

Eric Deggans (photo: NPR)

Eric Deggans, one of two people of color who is a regular commentator for NPR News. (photo: NPR)

FAIR has studied NPR‘s commentators twice before, in conjunction with broader studies of NPR‘s sources in 1991 (Extra!, 4-5/93) and 2003 (Extra!, 5-6/04). Both these earlier studies looked at four months of commentary, rather than five; the 1991 study looked only at the weekday news shows, not at the Weekend Edition programs.

The 14 regular commentators in 2015 were markedly lower than the 46 counted in 2003 and the 27 in in 1991, despite the earliest study excluding weekend programming.

The 14 percent of regular commentators who were female in 2015 was lower than the 24 percent women in 2003, though more than the 7 percent women in 1991. Likewise, the 14 percent of regular commentators who were people of color in 2015 is a step back from their 20 percent representation in 2003, though still more than in 1991, when just one of NPR‘s regular commentators—or 4 percent—was a person of color.

White men were 71 percent of NPR’s regular commentators in 2015, up from 2003’s 60 percent,  though down from 1991’s 85 percent.

Jonny Dymond (BBC)

The BBC‘s Jonny Dymond, the only person we found doing individual political commentary on NPR News. (image: BBC)

Seven of NPR’s regular commentators in 2015 critiqued arts and entertainment, while others commented on particular subject areas like history (Nate Dimeo), astronomy (Adam Frank), sports (Frank Deford) or cooking (Wolf). One, Greg O’Brien, delivered a five-part series of monologues describing his personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease.

The only regular commentator who specialized in politics was BBC Washington correspondent Jonny Dymond, who delivered colorful accounts of British electoral campaigns. His focus was on rhetorical styles and personal quirks (like favorite sports teams), however, rather than on actual political issues.

This is a big change from the previous studies, which found politics to be a more frequent theme of NPR commentary. In 1991, regular commentators produced 29 segments on international affairs, 21 commentaries on US politics and seven on economics. (Compare that to just two segments by Dymond.)

The 2003 study recorded subject areas by percentage, not raw numbers; 18 percent of the segments by regular commentators focused on domestic politics, while 4 percent looked at international affairs. Only 9 percent focused on the arts.

EJ Dionne & David Brooks (photo: Amherst)

E.J. Dionne’s point/counterpoint segments with David Brooks have replaced virtually all political commentary on NPR News. (photo: Amherst)

The political discussion that used to be incorporated into NPR‘s commentary is now relegated to Week in Politics, a feature on All Things Considered that usually airs on Friday. Rather than having a range of commentators giving their individual perspectives in monologues throughout the week, Week in Politics presents two commentators who represent a conservative and liberal viewpoint discussing trending topics in a point/counterpoint format.

The regular Week in Politics pundits are Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, representing liberals, and New York Times columnist (and PBS commentator) David Brooks taking the conservative side. Both are white men.

Occasionally Brooks or Dionne takes the week off, and a stand-in takes their place. Suzy Khimm, a senior editor at the New Republic, filled in for Dionne twice in the study period. Ramesh Ponnuru, an Indian-American man and senior editor at the National Review, filled in for Brooks six times, while Reihan Salam, National Review‘s executive director, filled in for Brooks twice. All three of the replacement pundits are Asian-American. As Khimm’s two appearances were the only female representation, Week in Politics‘ punditry was 97 percent male and 83 percent white.

The virtual elimination of political commentary from most of NPR‘s main news shows comes after decades of criticism from Republicans and conservative news commentators who considered NPR to be unworthy of taxpayer support, in part because it failed to include enough conservative voices. (In actuality, back when there was enough political commentary on NPR to evaluate its political slant, FAIR argued that it leaned to the right–see Extra!, 5-6/04.)

In May 2014, the board of directors of NPR adopted a new strategic plan that aimed, among other things, for  “undisputed leadership” in “stories at the intersection of race, ethnicity and culture,” and a newsroom that better “reflect[s] the fabric of America,” within three to five years.

With regular commentators who are 71 percent white men, NPR has its work cut out for it.

Fresh Air’s All-White Commentary

Fresh Air logoIn addition to looking at the regular commentators on NPR‘s main news programs, FAIR also examined the commentary heard on NPR‘s Fresh Air, which has a talkshow format. People appearing on the show were counted as regular commentators if they presented their perspectives in a monologue format two or more times during the study period (1/1/15-5/31/15).

All 11 regular commentators on Fresh Air were white; none were people of color (including Latinos).

Two regular commentators (18 percent) were women: Maureen Corrigan, a book critic, and music critic Michelle Mercer. Out of the 120 segments of regular commentary onFresh Air during the study period, Corrigan and Mercer combined appeared a total of 18 times, providing 15 percent of such segments.

All but two of the commentators on Fresh Air were arts or entertainment critics. The exceptions were Ed Ward, commenting on rock history, and Geoffrey Nunberg talking about linguistics.

NOTE: This is a revised version; an earlier version, released July 14, 2015, mistakenly combined data from the NPR talkshow Fresh Air with data on NPR‘s news-format shows, making the comparisons to earlier FAIR studies problematic. In this version, data on Fresh Air is presented in a separate sidebar.

Michael Tkaczevski is a student at Ithaca College and a FAIR editorial intern.

You can send comments to NPR ombud Elizabeth Jensen via NPR‘s contact form or via Twitter: @ejensenNYC. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. 

Michael Tkaczevski is a student at Ithaca College and a FAIR editorial intern.

By Published On: July 16th, 2015Comments Off on FAIR: Some Things Considered, Mostly by White Men

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