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.