The Anatomy of Bias: Minnesota Public Radio

You would think that, at this late hour in the proceedings, the question of whether the legacy news media exhibit political bias would be settled.  And for the most part it is.  Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012 indicates that 67 percent of the population believes that the media is biased either “a fair amount” or “a great deal.”  Pew reports that,

The number of Americans who believe there is a great deal of political bias in news coverage has edged up to [a record] 37% from 31% four years ago.  Republicans continue to express more concern about media bias than do Democrats, but the rise in recent years has occurred across party lines.


Still, it’s a lesson worth relearning from time to time.  A more interesting question would be how such biases present themselves.  It is still relatively rare that a legacy media figure will make flat out statements along the lines of “Republicans are bad, Democrats are good.”

Instead, bias more typically presents itself in story selection.  Try this experiment: pick your favorite opposing media outlets—New York Times vs. New York Post, MSNBC vs. Fox News—and compare the stories covered beyond the first few headlines.  Once you get past the front page, it’s as if they are describing completely different planets.

On Friday morning, my Gilmore and Glahn partner, John Gilmore, brought my attention to an example closer to home.  At 9:00 a.m. on October 04, 2013, Minnesota Public Radio’s The Daily Circuit hosted a roundtable on the subject of “Are political parties losing power?”. 

For the purposes of this edition of “Anatomy of Bias,” it will serve as a teaching moment in local media analysis.  I will describe the tricks of the trade and fill in a little background along the way.

The hour was hosted by MPR’s Kerri Miller.  Panelists included Denise Cardinal, the founder of Alliance for a Better Minnesota (ABM), Ben Golnik, a political consultant, and Kathryn Pearson, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Presumably, Ms. Cardinal was slated to represent the left side of the political spectrum, Mr. Golnik, the right side, and Dr. Pearson slotted in as the neutral fact-bearer of the group.

Introductions begin at the 00:50 mark of the recording of the show.  Note on the web page how Ms. Cardinal and Dr. Pearson are described by their current titles and affiliations.  Mr. Golnik is described as “Republican consultant.”  Before you, the listener, have even hit the play button, the shape of the playing field has been obscured in fog.

Denise Cardinal starts off the hour, taking the first question from Kerri Miller.  A little background before we begin.  As the then head of ABM, Ms. Cardinal was the architect of a series of libelous television ads run against Republican candidate Tom Emmer in the 2010 election for Minnesota governor.  As reported by MPR, in the 2010 election the liberal group,

ABM eventually spent $5.2 million on an ad campaign to defeat Emmer and elect Democrat Mark Dayton governor – $600,000 more than Dayton spent on all his campaign costs.

Emmer lost that election by a few thousand votes in a recount to Dayton.  Keep those facts in mind when listing to the recording of Friday’s show, especially the parts when Ms. Cardinal speaks about elections and civility in today’s politics.  That she is not identified as being liberal, left, or in any way aligned with the Democrat party represents a glaring omission of a relevant fact.

Let’s turn to MPR’s Kerri Miller for a moment.  As the show’s host and moderator, her chief means of controlling the narrative are by asking questions and controlling the show’s flow.

Republican, Interrupted
As for flow, by my count, Miller interrupts the Republican Golnik at total of thirteen 13 times.  During one 56-second stretch alone [08:26 to 09:22] MPR’s Miller interrupts Golnik seven times to challenge his facts.

Not only do such constant interruptions throw off a guest’s rhythm, they telegraph to the audience that the “neutral” host believes the guest to be untrustworthy or evasive.

On the rare occasions Miller speaks during Cardinal’s or Pearson’s time, she never interrupts and stops the flow.  Rather, Miller will say a word or two to clarify or to reinforce a point—never to challenge or dispute—as can be heard at the 17:47 mark with Cardinal and the 25:52 mark with Pearson.

The host’s interruptions of the token conservative are not just to challenge facts or opinion.  On two occasions, MPR’s Miller interrupts Republican Golnik to defend Democrat Governor Dayton—on the Vikings Stadium [30:22] and on MPR News’ sponsor MNsure [32:15]. 

Her defense of the Democrat Dayton during that latter exchange reveals volumes about the host and the outlet.  While the disastrous debut of Obamacare was making international news, and the problems with the local MNsure rollout again on the front pages, Miller dismisses the problems with her corporate sponsor as mere “glitches.”

Her defense of our liberal Governor is so over the top that she has to catch herself at one point [32:42 mark] with the walk back “not to speak for the Governor here,” played to laughter from the panelists.

The Loaded Question
Besides controlling flow, the framing of questions is another means a host can exhibit bias.  For example, around the quarter-hour mark [14:24 to 15:45] of the show, MPR’s Miller pushes the thesis that Americans will learn to love Obamacare, if only Republicans would just give it a chance to work.

An age old method of framing involves the asking of loaded questions, with the classic of the genre being “have you stopped beating your spouse?”  Starting at the 16:14 mark, MPR’s Miller asks Republican consultant Golnik to discuss how much damage is being done to Republicans by the current budget dispute.

At the 22:53 mark, MPR’s Miller turns the discussion to immigration reform, opening with the curious claim that Republicans were “fully committed” to comprehensive immigration reform coming out of the 2012 election.  But rather than posing another loaded question to the Republican Golnik, she asks for an update.

Normative vs. Positive Questions
The types of questions asked are important.  Consider, for example, the difference between normative vs. positive questions.  Normative questions center on how the world should be and ask for an opinion.  Positive questions deal with the world as it is and ask for facts. 

To use one of Miller’s favorite phrases, she brings Golnik “into the conversation,” not to hear his opinion or analysis, but to provide exposition.  The participant from the Right is given airtime, but not in any way that would expose MPR’s listeners to ideas they may find uncomfortable.  Instead, the token conservative merely serves to move the plot along.

As a result, Golnik ends up “winning” the air time battle.  Of the hour’s time consumed by guest talking, Golnik is heard 38 percent of the time, with Professor Pearson at 32 percent and Cardinal at 29 percent.  [Crosstalk and rounding constitute the remainder of the guest time.]

But not all seconds of air time are created equal.  Thanks to Miller’s constant interruptions, it is literally not until his final contribution on the Roundtable does Golnik manage to get in a full minute of non-stop speaking time.  The other guests are allowed to expound at length throughout the hour, accumulating a total of eight (8) exchanges lasting longer than 60 seconds.

Watch Your Language
As with everything, it’s often not what you say, but how you say it.  The wording choice can go a long way to exhibiting bias.

The “unaffiliated” Professor Pearson occasionally serves the role of neutral arbiter, but more frequently piles on with Cardinal and Miller in bashing Republicans, usually at the invitation of Miller [see 25:02 for example].  At one point [26:22], Professor Pearson uses the decidedly unacademic phrase “extreme Tea Party members” to describe Republican members of the House of Representatives.  Of course, that’s not as bad as Cardinal, who describes Republican members of the House as “terrorists” at the 27:26 mark of the recording.

The Sonorous Tones of Bias
I’m afraid there is nothing particularly remarkable about last Friday’s edition of the MPR political roundtable.  My personal favorite of recent Roundtable episodes was this edition from last month addressing healthcare.  [If you want to peek inside the unfiltered political id of public radio, spend of few minutes scrolling through the Twitter timeline of MPR’s Bob Collins.]  There is nothing particularly transgressive about public radio’s brand of bias.  Just close your eyes and hear the hushed voices of an ideology going unchallenged and the silence of other worldviews.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Bill Glahn.