NPR’s Dvorkin’s Dubious Exercise in Labeling

National Public Radio's ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, posted a curious piece of ombudsmanery yesterday concerning NPR's habit of turning to think tank flacks for commentary.

National Public Radio’s ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, posted a curious piece of ombudsmanery yesterday concerning NPR’s habit of turning to think tank flacks for commentary.

Ever since, passionately leftist bloggers have been all over his article, which shows that NPR has used far more talking heads from conservative think tanks than it has from liberal think tanks during the past year. The tally of think tank hits for the year, as compiled by Dvorkin, stands as follows:

American Enterprise - 59
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

The final accounting? NPR called on conservative (as defined by Dvorkin) think tanks for commentary 239 times, while it called on liberal (as defined by Dvorkin) think tanks only 141 times.

That’s grim news for former Corporation for Public Broadcasting chair (and old CJR Daily buddy) Kenneth Tomlinson, who has waged his own war against NPR as a purported center for leftist agitprop.

And while what makes Tomlinson unhappy usually makes us quite happy, we have our own problems with being given a numerical list like this, totally stripped of context. We have no idea which stories think tankers were interviewed for, what they said, or what the reporter countered with after their sound bite. So, while we know how many partisans NPR spoke to, we don’t know anything about the content of their discussion, which is the real issue here.

Granted, trying to contextualize 380 different stories might be too much to ask of Dvorkin; we sure wouldn’t to read the beast of an article that exercise would spawn. But the rest of his piece is just as shaky as the blithe labeling in his lists. In trying to anticipate some of the venom sure to come NPR’s way from liberal commentators angered by this lopsided list, Dvorkin — sans evidence — unconvincingly writes that “There may be other experts who are interviewed on NPR who present a liberal perspective. But they tend [to] be based in universities and colleges and are not part of the think tank culture.”

As any ombudsman knows — or should know — saying something “may be” the case is either a dodge or a cop-out. It’s the stuff of Fox News, not, one hopes, NPR. (This writer “may be” seven feet tall and redheaded — or he may not.)

Secondly, Dworkin’s own definition of the word “liberal” is suspect — there’s a lot of that going around these days — if he truly considers CSIS and Brookings part of some sort of liberal infrastructure. (Brookings in particular has been known to lean over so far backward to inform rather than to advocate that it sometimes falls on the seat of its centrist pants.)

Dvorkin — and his readers, and all of us — would do well to stop this pointless game of labeling people and institutions on a left-right scale, as if every motivation and every intent were a political one. It’s a simplification, and it’s a buy-in to the culture wars that promote not discourse, but only discord. Most of the time, Dvorkin is a smart and nuanced guy. He should know better.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.