anatomy of liberal bias

This morning on NPR I heard a classic NPR-like story. It was a discussion of budget cuts and the potential effect on NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The story can be found here.

As I said, it’s a classic NPR story. The reporting is excellent; the sources are strong; the background is thorough and well-researched. However it seemed to me that there was an unspoken bias to the story: NOAA is important, the message of the story goes, and as such budget cutters ought to be very careful with what they choose to cut. Remaining unasked were questions of whether there might be other ways to organize the provision of such services. For example, much of the weather data provided by NOAA is ultimately piped through commercial handlers (media, websites, etc.).  Could they pay for a privatized piece of the administration, and use revenues so generated to fund the truly public missions (e.g., hurricane tracking)? Could foreign governments “subscribe” to such services? I have no idea if either of these is at all reasonable, but the story contained what seems to me an unexamined assumption: if something is important, government should support it. Now, I generally agree with that proposition, but I do think that treating it as an assumption constitutes bias.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “anatomy of liberal bias”

  1. This is a rather generous definition of liberal bias, don’t you think? It requires us to give up entirely on the idea that there are public goods, a concept that even economists used to accept. I recognize that the right has effectively shifted the discourse so far to the right that recognizing that public funds for public goods is not only efficient but the most efficient price per capita may now sound lefty, but this is just the reality, and I refuse to let my grip on reality go, so I reject that this is liberal. It is just true.

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    1. It’s not that I think NPR needed to give up on the idea of public goods, but that in failing even to mention that there might be applicable other models, I think the story is biased against such models. If the story had explored alternatives and explained how they would be impractical or otherwise problematic, that would have solved the problem in my view. Indeed, it would provide precisely the opportunity to evaluate whether “public funds for [these] public goods is…the most efficient price per capita.”

      Like it or not, we are in the middle of some very serious, foundational discussions about the appropriate role of the state, and in the context of those discussions I think it’s appropriate for a news organization to examine specifically its assumptions in this regard.

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      1. Andy, I was too quick in my earlier comment. Let me say this more fully. Back when I was an econ undergrad, I learned that public goods were an important example of something that the invisible hand of the market would not provide for. This is because the benefit of the good was universal, so the cost of the good, from the standpoint of the individual, would always be too high for the individual to want to pay. This wasn’t presented as a right-wing or left-wing argument, but rather a fact of the economy–one that could be demonstrated with the usual supply/demand models and a little math. Public goods just can’t be marketized or they will fail to be public goods. That is that.

        Your argument, in my view, presumes that this is not only up for debate, but that my fact is a left-wing fact. I disagree. And the only reason one might think otherwise is because of the horrific state of public discourse, which is not too fact-friendly. I refuse to accept the terms of that discourse because to do so is to lose sight of the reality of the situation.

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  2. Long time reader, been a long time since I commented. This is off topic from NPR, but as someone who didn’t attend ASA in Vegas I would be very interested in the Scatterplot perspective on David Brooks winning the “Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues Award”. Apparently the reception went badly? Doug Hartmann has a post about it at The Society Pages: http://thesocietypages.org/editors/2011/08/29/cheers-jeers-and-the-public-face-of-sociology/, where he says:

    “Anything less [than defending Brooks’ right to interpret and write with a purportedly conservative bias] would be both elitist and a failure to appreciate our discipline’s genuinely conservative (not Republican) impulses and insights with respect to norms, solidarity, and the high ideals that support and sustain social order and democracy in the contemporary world.”

    If this has already been discussed back when the awards were first announced, my apologies, and I’d appreciate a trackback link.

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    1. I’ve thought about writing a post about this, and may. I think there was some stuff at the reception, but not as bad as some people feared. I’d be interested in hearing more from anyone who was actually there, though.

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  3. I think Tina’s comment points to the increasing economic rationalization of the state rather than a liberal bias per se. We think that if the government can do something efficient which will bring measurable benefits then it should, by all means, do it. If you believe that economic rationalization tends toward state intervention (a la Hayek) and liberals tend to be more interventionalist then this would result in liberal bias.

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  4. I appreciate Tina’s and OW’s points, and I am likely displaying just how little attention I paid in my macroeconomics class. However my point is not that the story should have assumed that it should be privatized, but that in the context of an anti-state juggernaut the story should have addressed the question of public provision of public goods, thereby making the assumed explicit. For example, imagine:

    “In a time of worries about the federal deficit, some might call for cutting or privatizing NOAA. Here’s the problem: much of NOAA’s core mission is what economists call a public good. That means that once someone’s paid for it, there’s no way to keep others from taking advantage of it too. Public funding is generally understood to be a good way of handling public goods, so for many of the core functions of NOAA there’s probably no good way of privatizing. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.”

    My point is that reducing bias doesn’t mean offering similar credence to all sides, but rather addressing responsibly the contours of current debate.

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