Same show, different planets

Richardland_1In an interview last year with Salon, Terry Gross of Fresh Air addressed the charge of some conservatives that National Public Radio works from a liberal bias:

Do you think that you have a bias?

On the air?


I think we try to be very fair on the air. We’re always asking ourselves if we’re being fair — we have constant editorial discussions about how to handle issues.

How about off the air? Which way do you lean politically?

Off the air I have opinions which I don’t care to share publicly. Because I have confidence as a professional that I can treat issues fairly. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions — but I like to leave them out of my public life.

I do not doubt that Gross and her colleagues strive for fairness or that they often believe they have achieved it. But if anyone thinks fairness means treating her guests with equally relaxed conversational styles or equally demanding questions, compare her interviews with Bishop Gene Robinson and Bishop Robert Duncan.

My summary of those two interviews: Gross asks Robinson how it feels to be a victim of oppression, and asks Duncan why he’s so hung up on homosexuality.

Gross covered the religion-and-politics front yesterday by conducting separate interviews with Richard Land and Jim Wallis. We can at least be thankful she avoided the usual shouting festival that emerges when Wallis occupies the same studio as Jerry Falwell.Wallis_mug

From Land (photo at top right, of course) we learn that conservatives care about more than abortion and gay marriage — though Gross tweaks him, somewhat fairly, when he says reporters never ask him about issues other than abortion and gay marriage.

From Wallis we learn that his prolife beliefs do not mean he favors “criminalizing agonizing, desperate choices.”

“I want to actually do something about abortion and not just argue about it at election time and ignore it in between those elections,” Wallis adds. (Actually, Jerry Falwell believes the same thing and acts on it through his Thomas Road Baptist Church)

Even Wallis’ minimalist political approach to abortion is too much for Katha Pollitt of The Nation, who either does not grasp or does not believe his promise not to “criminalize” anything:

Fortunately, God shares his priorities: Wallis often points out that the Bible mentions poverty thousands of times and abortion only a few. I’m not sure what this tells us — first we eradicate poverty and then we force women to have babies against their will? But in any case, Wallis is wrong: The Bible doesn’t mention abortion even once. Wallis cites the text antichoicers commonly use to justify their position: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). Say what? Nothing about abortion there, pro or con. Nobody who wasn’t sure that somewhere in the Bible there must be a proof text against terminating a pregnancy would read that meaning into these words.

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  • Bob Smietana


    The Land interview was disappointing in that he was often rude, direspectful, and seemed to treat Gross with contempt, calling her “criminally naive” for asking questions about the war in Iraq, and spouting doublespeak about the weapons of mass destruction.

    That was in stark contrast to Wallis, who in interviews, is congenial and when a reporter makes an error, for example calling Wallis a 19th century “evangelist” instead of a “19th century evangelical” (which is how Wallis often refers to himself) he didn’t feel the need to correct her terminology, just kept on with the interview in a very pastoral tone.

    Reporters need to be fair, but they are human too. Treat them with respect, and you get better interviews.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    I fully agree about the importance of treating reporters with respect. I think tensions arose between Gross and Land long before Land’s “criminally naive” remark, which certianly made me wince.

    My concern still stands: Gross sometimes treats conservative guests, such as Robert Duncan, more aggressively than she treats liberal guests. I think Land sensed that edge, and was responding in kind.

    If Gross were interviewing me, I would try to make lots of self-effacing jokes. She has a wonderful laugh, and humor tends to defuse tension well.

  • Bob Smietana

    What’s wrong with being civil, or maybe even pleasant. It’s hard to have a conversational interview when a guest comes in with an edge. Laughter helps–especially the self-effacing kind. So few Evangelicals or conservatives have the kind of humity that allows us to laugh at ourselves. Where’s Mike Yaconelli when we need him?

  • Marcus Tullius Cicero

    As for me, I have no problems criminalizing agonizing choices to commit murder. Maybe a few executions and people will start to make those agonizing choices in the other direction!

  • biblemike

    Why are evangelicals so willing to dance with reporters instead of stating clearly and calmly our positions and the basis for them? We enter into arguments couched in terms we disagree with without disputing those terms or stating our position. We end up arguing against the liberal or humanistic position instead of for our own. Bottom line is if they are so concerned with the rights of women, what about the rights of the unborn child? The scripture does not directly address abortion, but Psalm 139 does say that God instills life in the womb not after. We lose these arguments because we don’t make sound arguments not because our arguments are not sound. People like Terry Gross and Kathy Pollit are not going to give us a fair hearing. Get over it and start couching our positions in logical form and in the end they will look like the bigots they are.

  • Dan Crawford

    Assuming she is not deliberately dishonest, Terry Gross is at best disingenuous. Having listened to her interviews for several decades, I can tell you what her personal beliefs are since she has no trouble making them clear in her interviews. She may think she is fair, but in point of fact, she is not. She entertains guests whose only reason for appearing is an agenda Terry enthuses over. Long before TV caved in to the gay agenda “Queer Guy” franchises, Terry was touting tour books describing gay friendly vacation locations for gays, and interviewing all sorts of gay people about the gay lifestyle. Her treatment of liberal politicians who support “abortion rights” is quite different from her interviews with those liberal politicians who don’t share her enthusiasm for “choice”. Terry is not one to provide equal time to those whose views she don’t find congenial. Her treatment of Bishop Duncan is only one of many egregious examples.

    Several weeks ago, Terry was interviewed by Frank Rich (another dispassionate journalist) as part of the 90th Street Y (?) series telecast on C-Span. Maybe because Frank couldn’t help gushing over her, she revealed many of her biases and even acknowledged that yes, they do show up in her interviews. When her guests challenge her, Terry is not a happy camper.

    In addition to her biases, I think is often obvious that Terry prepares sloppily for her interviews. She needs a better research and production staff – as evidenced again in the Robinson-Duncan interviews.

    Terry gave a free pass to Robinson’s absolutely pathetic assertion that conservatives in the church have taken up the gay issue since Red-baiting is no longer available to them. She treated it as a forgone conclusion and moved on to another aspect of Robinson’s self-pity.

    Terry, unfortunately, is not the only NPR “journalist” who suffers greatly from bias. Listen to the morning and evening “news” shows, Weekend Edition, and others. For every diamond produced by NPR there are several hundred tons of coal. We deserve better from Public Broadcasting, but PBS sees itself as serving a very narrow public: affluent, highly-educated persons who entertain no doubts about their intellectual and moral superiority. If you have doubts about that, listen to their pledge pitches.

    I don’t really listen to PBS much anymore – their television shows have deteriorated substantially in quality of production and content over the past 15 years. If public funding were cut tomorrow, I would miss some of the classical music programming, Prairie Home Companion (though Garrison seems to have slipped a bit off the deep end – he takes liberals far more seriously than he used to), and What Do You Know, and the Car Guys. But there isn’t much else to lament.

    As for Terry, I hope her book sells well. She might consider leaving radio.

  • dlw

    I think Wallis obscures the central issue of abortion, which is the potential legal redef’n of when human personhood begins. Inevitably this will criminalize some elective abortions by redefining the defined circumstances wherein a woman has the right to elect an abortion. My general impression from their organization is that they have wanted to sweep abortion under the rug of a fully-pro-life agenda. As I understand it, this does not provide much concrete hope that adequate political capital will be dedicated to making some legal changes that will effectively prevent abortions. And so, Wallis’s approach has less appeal for those people that have made this issue central for themselves in the past and are loathe to let all their efforts go to waste.

    I mean maybe I am just a nut, but I still feel hurt that hardly anyone from Sojourners interacted with my idea to depoliticize and prevent abortion when I started posting at a forum they set up last may.

    The main person that debated with me was a young Catholic that was asserting the authority of his church in defining when we become human beings.

    sorry for getting off topic. I tend to find Wallis often choosing ideological purity over practical political strategy. It would have been better for the poor if he had tried to improve inter-cultural communication in this past election, rather than mainly triumphing the making of poverty more of an issue in the election. It doesn’t matter if Kerry did not make poverty an issue. At stake was the viability of our two-party system. What gov’tal aid that exists for the poor depends upon us having multiple parties practically competing for our votes. And so it was more important to reduce the faith-based political acrimony than to force Kerry to be more economically liberal. The real reason our country’s politics have drifted to the right economically is that so many social/religious conservatives do not have very deep habits of political deliberation and too easily give their votes to the economic-conservative dominated Republican party.


  • JoJo

    “My summary of those two interviews: Gross asks Robinson how it feels to be a victim of oppression, and asks Duncan why he’s so hung up on homosexuality.”

    Ummm… Isn’t Robinson being personally attacked for what he is, an honest gay clergyman? And isn’t Duncan a leader of those who actively oppose homosexuality in the Anglican clergy? And isn’t that WHY both guys are newsworthy? (If the Anglican Communion had simply accepted Robinson’s consecration, would either man have been interviewed?) Sometimes a reporter has to call it for what it is. Otherwise it’s just not honest journalism.

    I’ve listened to a number of Fresh Air programs and am generally impressed with Gross’s preparation and her ability to ask good, informed questions that make the subject have to stop and think before answering. Former NPR newscaster Bob Edwards was a master at reporting the news by asking good questions and then getting out of the way.

    What I heard on the Duncan interview was that Gross asked a few questions, often in just a sentence or two, and then Duncan responded to them completely and at length, without interruption. Don’t overlook the fact that both sides were invited to present their points of view. Gross was cordial and professional. To complain because Gross didn’t chuckle and giggle is just plain nitpicky. Bishop Duncan got what he had every right to expect from NPR, a fair opportunity to present his case. No wonder he closed by saying, “You’re doing an important work and we thank you…”

    What is it with you guys? Have any of you ever watched Fox News or read the New York Post? How do you rate their objectivity? How about right wing opiniontainment like Limbaugh and O’Reilly, which many people unfortunately misinterpret as journalism? Don’t these blowhards deserve at least SOME criticism? And yet you grouse only about liberal bias! People, if it doesn’t cut both ways then it ain’t a good principle, it’s hypocrisy.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Funny you should mention Rush LImbaugh, JoJo:

    I have criticized the New York Post for its distortion of a fine Vanity Fair piece on Johnny Cash:

    No, Gene Robinson is not being “personally attacked for what he is,” at least by Robert Duncan and the Anglican Network.

    I consider Bill O’Reilly a blowhard who is not worthy of being called a journalist. When he stormed off Fresh Air last year, all my sympathies were with Terry Gross. I have listened to Fresh Air for roughly 20 years, and will continue to listen to it. I consider Gross one of the most talented interviewers on radio.

    My critique of Gross mentioned nothing about her chuckling or giggling. It concerned the difference in questions she sometimes asks of her guests. I hear a difference there and you don’t. That does not make me a hypocrite.

  • dlw

    To put it straight JoJo, the questions presume the normative judgment that it seems you share.


  • JoJo

    “My critique of Gross mentioned nothing about her chuckling or giggling. It concerned the difference in questions she sometimes asks of her guests. I hear a difference there and you don’t.”

    Actually I didn’t say that Gross treated the two gentlemen identically. Having listened only to the Duncan interview, not the one with Robinson, I accept your statement that Gross used a different style and tone of questioning. But the assumption seems to be that such different treatment indicates a flaw on the part of the interviewer. It’s not clear to me why that is necessarily a problem, or even noteworthy.

    As I pointed out before, there are critical imbalances between Robinson and Duncan. While their theologies may be equal and opposite extremes, their actions are not. Robinson wants to serve the church as an episcopal leader; Duncan wants to serve the church by getting Robinson fired. Gross could speak with them differently and yet fairly. This subject seems similar to the discussion in Terry Mattingly’s thread about hagiography. What really constitutes balance in reporting? Terry’s suggestion is to accompany a story about the difficulties of being gay in America with another story about the difficulties of being straight in America. Seems a little forced, no?

    “That does not make me a hypocrite.”

    Apologies for harsh language, especially where it does not apply. Obviously I’m unhappy with the way that some folks selectively apply principles. It’s a heck of a lot easier to find fault with journalistic objectivity than it is to be an impartial reporter. To all the people who vociferously argue that NPR is unfair, who DO you consider to be the ideal in good journalism? It’s time to stand up for something positive, not just take easy potshots. Terry Gross did not claim to be perfect. A careful reading of her comments indicates her aim for fairness, not a delusion of self-perfection.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    {Robinson wants to serve the church as an episcopal leader; Duncan wants to serve the church by getting Robinson fired.}

    Duncan has been the Bishop of Pittsburgh since 1997, which involves far more than weighing in on whether the Episcopal Church acted correctly in approving Bishop Robinson.

    Like any other bishop, he confirms young people, interviews potential seminarians, visits the congregations in his diocese, preaches, and — this applies to his concerns about Bishop Robinson — strives to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.”

    Further, l have never seen a single quote that supports your description of his wanting to have Bishop Robinson fired. He *is* saying the Episcopal Church’s decisions harm its relations with other member churches of the Anglican Communion. And he was involved in this debate long before Bishop Robinson was elected.

    {To all the people who vociferously argue that NPR is unfair, who DO you consider to be the ideal in good journalism? It’s time to stand up for something positive, not just take easy potshots.}

    I’m not sure if the challenge applies to me, but I’ll respond anyway: I have regularly praised other journalists’ work in this space. To name a few: Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News, Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Jeffrey Rosen (for a piece in The Atlantic).

    {Terry Gross did not claim to be perfect. A careful reading of her comments indicates her aim for fairness, not a delusion of self-perfection.}

    If I may repeat what I wrote in the original post:

    I do not doubt that Gross and her colleagues strive for fairness or that they often believe they have achieved it.

  • tmatt

    JoJo/Whoever you are:

    Actually, I never watch Fox News — except for Brit Hume. What’s it like. I also don’t read the NY Post. I am not into rude Libertarianism.

  • Jeff

    Just on personal impressions, and not an Episcopalian, i heard the interview on my car radio, did the ol’ NPR “sit in the parking lot” to hear all of the “Fresh Air” that featured Robinson and Duncan, and was struck by the difference in tone Terry Gross took with each. I know she has done much good work, and will likely cause me to sit in a parking lot even on frigid days again in the future.

    But i hope one of her personal disciplines is to go back and listen to shows occasionally, because i truly believe she is professional enough to notice the striking difference on a rehearing. She sounded very cheery and welcoming with Robinson (who was certainly that in response, no matter what one thinks of his views or defense of them), but with Duncan, the tone had a distinct chill — to these ears, at least, but i think dispassionately audible — and she was from the start much more in the “permission to treat the witness as hostile, your honor?” mode. Duncan was, quite frankly, not at his best (because of the icy interlocutor?), but in no way hostile or defensive. He was a bit fumbly and off his game.

    Perhaps the pre-on-air interaction set the tone, and the fault/credit was in the guests’ set-up. But for a professional interviewer with a Peabody on the shelf, that shouldn’t create the sharp distinction i heard.

    For what it’s worth . . .

    Peace, Jeff

  • Stephen A.

    While I’m no fan of NPR (due to the institutional bias I hear on a regular basis) I have to say that biased interviews come from both Left AND Right.

    For example, on Fox News a couple of years ago, I watched as the blond woman (forgot her name) interviewed an Israeli official a day after a rather deadly “reprisal” attacks were made by the Israeli military inside Gaza, killing some high-level Hamas leaders, but also some civilians.

    She asked him how the government was dealing with the terrorism and why they had been so “hesitant” to strike back and so “restrained.”

    Then, she turned to a Palestinian Authority spokesman (via satellite) and asked, “Why haven’t you done enough to control your people? When are you going to stop the homicide bombings?” and several other challenging questions. No balance. Not fair.

    A good reporter knows enough to hide biases and ask BOTH sides tough, challenging questions.

    While I didn’t hear this particular interview about Bishop Robinson, I’ve heard Ms. Gross and others on NPR sound just as bad as the Fox News woman.

    Lack of balance is as bad in religious reporting as in secular reporting. Although lack of knowledge is often a more pressing problem, as has been discussed here before.