Bias on NPR – but not the Kind You’d Expect

The Way the Telecom "Monster Truck" Metaphor Actually Looks

On the way into work a week or two ago, I heard a report on the current state of the Net Neutrality debate in Washington in an NPR store done by Joel Rose (“Midterm Elections May Hinder Net Neutrality”).

The Net Neutrality Debate

The Net Neutrality issue is one I’m passionate about, and as a public relations pro – I’m acutely aware of how the telecommunications corporations are spinning the issue.  “Spin” is the appropriate term because they’re using Luntz-esque semantics to diminish the public’s understanding of what is being proposed.  In this particular case, rather than address net neutrality on its merits, they’re seeking to gain traction for their position by focusing on a minute detail of the events unfolding in Washington at the FCC.

Here’s the train of logic:

  1. Net Neutrality is Popular: They know that the public is overwhelmingly satisfied with how Net Neutrality is working; it is a democratizing force that grants power to consumers/citizens at the same time it limits the power of governments/corporations.
  2. More Regulation is Not: The public has an overwhelmingly negative perception of the legislature and the government in general, and also of the idea of more laws/regulation.  (This is the angle they’re appealing to the Tea Party movement with).
  3. Formally Enshrining Net Neutrality = “More Regulation”: Rather than present the case for allowing telecommunications companies to nullify Net Neutrality, they’re presenting their case as “don’t regulate” or “we don’t need more government interference.”

This meme is at work and can be observed in a recent poll commissioned by “Broadband for America” – an industry front group funded by (among others) AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.  It falsely presented the question of Net Neutrality as ‘new government regulation’.  You can read their press release here (where they, of course, don’t include the actual survey instrument).

Back to the NPR Piece

The main complaint of media critics is that news organizations have an obligation to play “referee” as opposed to presenting “both sides” of an argument walking away.  NPR and Rose provide an excellent example in this case as the Net Neutrality is (falsely) framed:

[…] The recent midterm elections could affect the future of the Internet. Democrats in Congress, along with the Federal Communications Commission, had been crafting rules to protect what they call a free and open Internet. But Republicans say the Internet isn’t broken, doesn’t need fixing. Now with Republicans about to gain control of the House, advocates of new rules for an open Internet are pinning their fading hopes on the FCC. […]


[…] Mr. BRUCE MEHLMAN (Lobbyist): Does the FCC say were going to figure out a way to hammer out a compromise? Or do they say were putting the monster truck in drive?

(Soundbite of engine revving)

ROSE: That was Bruce Mehlman, a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, and possibly the first person to ever compare the Federal Communications Commission to a monster truck.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of engine revving) […]

It’s subtle, but there’s a variety of elements of this story that are biased, but these are the main two:

  • Framing: NPR/Rose allow the telecoms to begin the narrative where they want, which is with the introduction of the bill to formally enshrine Net Neutrality under the law.  The very critical history of Net Neutrality is excluded from this discussion; chiefly, that the bill to formally protect Net Neutrality arose only because the telecommunications industry attempted to eliminate it in 2006. (Fortunately for Net Neutrality advocates, they entrusted the tech-illiterate late Sen. Ted Stevens to carry their water for them and he embarrassed himself so badly that it did irreparable damage to their case).
  • Treatment: Rose opted to include a sound byte of a monster truck to support the metaphor presented by Bruce Mehlman (shill for the telecoms).  He afforded no such courtesy for Gigi Sohn, President of Public Knowledge (the “other side” in this piece).

Perhaps it’s because Sohn didn’t have a colorful metaphor to present with her case, perhaps Rose thought it would sex up the story to feature the monster truck metaphor (he did, after all, describe the debate as “dry”).  Regardless, the end result is to play into the hands of the telecoms and allow them to set frame the debate.

Telecoms + Wikileaks = Trouble for Net Neutrality

I anticipate (if it hasn’t started already) that the interests trying to kill Net Neutrality will almost certainly use the recent Wikileaks release of 250,000 cables* as a wedge to advance their agenda.  The angle they’ll take is that for “security” reasons, we need to allow corporate control to be able to shut down “terrorist” organizations like Wikileaks.

[*Correction: Nick Manes correctly pointed out that thus far, only about one percent of the 250,000+ cables have been released]

One thought on “Bias on NPR – but not the Kind You’d Expect

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