Who Really Runs NPR—Liberals? Right-Wingers? Dollar Signs?

A recent report on "conversion therapy" spotlights public radio's weak spot

I’m not very good at keeping up with my social media profile, but every now and then I want to share news that’s trenchant and wise enough I think it’ll better people I know to experience it. That’s a pretty high bar, as you might imagine, so that means I don’t link to things often. But this weekend I shared a link to a column by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who writes for the New York Times.

Krugman is someone I respect because, despite my barely being able to calculate a tip at a restaurant, I understand complex economic problems once they’re Krugmanized for the innumerate masses. He’s a straight shooter who understands the value of an educated electorate.

His July 28th column, “The Centrist Cop-Out,” asserts that throughout the debt ceiling debate, it was the Republicans who had “taken America hostage.”

News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasize about some kind of “centrist” uprising, as if the problem was too much partisanship on both sides.

Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” …

… The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism.

I don’t know if Krugman listens to NPR, but I suspect he’d be quite distressed by a recent report on conversion therapy, which tries so desperately hard to be “balanced” that it approaches that satirical headline Krugman penned about the shape of the planet.

Conversion therapy—the attempt to “convert” someone from gay to straight–is in the news because Michele Bachmann’s psychologist husband makes it available at the Christian mental health clinics he owns. Bachmann has come under fire due to her connection to such a therapy, which—contrary to NPR’s report—is not at all “under debate.” The “therapy” has as much credibility as a Scientology e-meter.

Conversion therapy has long been used as a sociopolitical tool by Christian organizations to eliminate homosexuality. Focus on the Family, for instance, has been trying to seem kinder and gentler since founder James Dobson left. So they’ve recrafted their rhetoric around gay people to favor the pitying, therapeutic approach over the punitive. We can help you, they say, instead of condemning you. But this kind of help is condemnation. Whether you say it with honey or vinegar, the message is the same: Homosexuality is a sinful, unnatural state that people choose.

In the report “Can Therapy Change Sexual Orientation?” NPR’s Alix Spiegel said she was presenting “two sides of a debate that’s been raging,” but that is utterly specious. The debate is not raging. On the one side are people, gay and straight, who believe that such sham therapy is, at best, completely ridiculous and hugely damaging at worst. On the other “side” are people motivated by hate (of others or of self).

If she wanted to be truly fair, she should have taken a straight Christian man and put him through conversion-style therapy to become gay, like an evangelical version of La Cage Aux Folles. (Okay, so that example isn’t entirely relevant, but wouldn’t that be fun? MTV: new reality show idea for you.)

If you listen carefully to Spiegel’s report, you can detect the bias—in favor of sanity. The bulk of the report is a sharp rebuke to conversion therapy, including an interview with a therapist who calls the practice “distorted at its core.” This accords with Spiegel’s accomplished mental health reporting throughout the years. She is an experienced writer and reporter who has done superb work. There is little possibility that she believes, personally, that conversion therapy is legitimate. But she appears to be hamstrung by “balance.”

NPR has problems in this area. Once a liberal bastion, the station is now alleged to be run by right-wingers, though I’ve never seen any hard evidence along those lines. Whatever it does, people claim bias. Conservatives say reports are biased in favor of the left. Progressives say the same reports are biased in favor of the right. The survival of the institution depends, in part, in controlling such perceptions, so there is ample motivation among reporters and editors to at least pretend there are two sides to a story even when there aren’t.

Imagine if Spiegel had run the piece as an interview with the therapist and the conversion-therapy victim. Christian groups would have become irate; the anger would spread to politically influential pockets of the Christian world; Republicans would spring to the podiums in the House and Senate to condemn NPR’s bias; happy post-gays would be trotted out as success stories. If I were Spiegel’s editor, I might say, “Look, I know this is ridiculous, but we’re going to have to pretend there are two sides to this thing. We just can’t chance galvanizing a political response that could jeopardize our funding. Do you know anyone you can talk to who thinks conversion therapy is great?”

The problem with that approach is that it prioritizes the security of the larger organization over the truth. And that’s not good for the body politic.

The title of the segment isn’t nearly as disturbing as the website’s permalink for the piece, which includes these words: “/can-therapy-help-change-sexual-orientation-the-jurys-still-out.” The jury is not still out. That is factually incorrect.

I wish I could tell someone at NPR that they don’t have to shy away from fact in order to preserve the perception of balance. But I don’t believe that. The station is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. So now people in the gay community will stop donating to NPR and recommend their friends do the same. But that’s better than losing public funding. After all, the LGBT community will come back. Where else are we going to get our liberal bias?