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Viewpoint: Neither individuals nor (especially) the government should support ‘National Politically Correct Radio’

This article originally ran at Forbes and has been republished here with permission of the author.

NPR–“National Politically Correct Radio”–has a long and sordid history of bias, which is obvious in both the attitude of its reporters and the content of its programming. The coverage of genetic engineering is particularly unfair and inaccurate. Why should the federal government subsidize and lend respectability to this left-wing, anti-science propaganda shop?

The political leanings of many of National Public Radio’s prominent reporters and commentators are hardly a secret. Nina Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs correspondent, is the poster-child for the network’s inflammatory, mean-spirited, left-wing vitriol. She said in 1995 about then-Senator Jesse Helms (R-N. Carolina), an ultra-conservative Southerner who staunchly opposed civil rights legislation: “I think he ought to be worried about the–about what’s going on in the good Lord’s mind, because if there’s retributive justice, he’ll get AIDS from a transfusion, or one of his grandchildren will get it.” That’s not so much political as just plain vile.

Totenberg also dismissed then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito as “some white guy.” (Not surprisingly, she seems pleased with the liberal mediocrities appointed to the Court by President Obama.)

Following the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who years earlier had availed himself of the “Massachusetts Kennedy family exemption” from prosecution after callously leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to drown after he drove his car off a bridge, Empress Nina granted forgiveness: “He’ll be remembered as a truly Shakespearean figure: tragic, flawed; who in the end achieved redemption through greatness—both in his personal life and in his professional life, and did enormous things for millions and millions of people.”

In the interest of balance, perhaps NPR’s crack legal affairs reporter should have sought a comment from the Kopechne family about Kennedy’s “redemption through greatness.”

On Oct. 10, 2010, Totenberg offered this penetrating analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a free-speech case that opened up political campaign contributions and was toxic to liberals: “Well, you know, really, this is the next scandal. It’s the scandal in the making. They don’t have to disclose anything. And eventually, this is the kind of thing that led to Watergate.”

It is hard to square the way that Totenberg wears her politics on her sleeve and repeatedly displays venom in her public utterances with the NPR policy on outside appearances: “NPR journalists should not express views they would not air in their role as an NPR journalist.” It was the alleged violation of this policy that got commentator Juan Williams fired in 2010 after he had expressed some personal discomfort at seeing people in “Muslim garb” on airplanes.

The obvious question: Would Totenberg get away with wishing AIDS on a politician’s grandchildren in her news reports?

There are numerous other ways in which NPR and its affiliates reveal their biases–which are manifested not only by political favoritism but also by a kind of back-to-Nature, New Age-y fundamentalism that embraces environmental myths and hyperbole and is systematically antagonistic to certain sectors of science and technology. The “Living on Earth” program, in particular, seems to reflect reporting from a parallel universe devoid of balance or objectivity in which every radical environmental anxiety and prejudice is accepted uncritically.

The nationally syndicated Diane Rehm show, whose selection of guests is a veritable showcase for systematic bias, is consistently anti-science and anti-technology while it promotes big and paternalistic government and pillories the Right. Rehm views representatives of self-interested, anti-industry, radical NGOs as offering worthy and objective expertise while genuinely disinterested academics or industry-affiliated scientists are treated as shills and hucksters.

Rehm and others at NPR seem to have it in for genetic engineering in particular. One example was Rehm’s January 3, 2012 program on the labeling of genetically engineered foods, a bash-fest dominated by a rabidly anti-science, shamelessly mendacious (and self-interested) friend of Rehm’s who heads an organic yogurt company. Predictably, it became an exercise in advocacy for government-mandated labeling, although such a requirement is demonstrably misleading and unnecessary and according to federal appeals courts would violate the constitutional guarantee of commercial free speech.

Among the most egregious transgressions of fair, professional journalism was a series of programs called “The DNA Files” which set up a false moral equivalence by juxtaposing the views of Princeton University Professor Lee Silver against those of Margaret Mellon, long-time NGO-dweller, troglodyte and antagonist of any and all applications of biotechnology. This pairing was a paradigm of NPR’s notion of “balance”: a mainstream, non-ideological academic versus an intransigent, anti-industry, anti-technology, uneducable activist.

Another baseless assault on genetic engineering occurred in December 2011, when on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund was permitted to excoriate the genetic engineering of plants without any opposition or correction. It was particularly ironic because the subject of the segment was “A Planet Running Low on Water,” and genetic engineering’s greatest boon to food security and to the environment in the long term will likely be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses. (One drought-resistant variety – of corn – is already available commercially in the United States, and many more are in advanced stages of the development pipeline.)

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world’s freshwater consumption — and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, so the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of it for other uses.

Where does genetic engineering come in? Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. For example, Egyptian researchers have shown that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat and in some deserts can be cultivated with the meager rainfall alone.

Ever creative, Living on Earth even managed to find an activist to trash the genetic engineering of trees that will provide fast-growing and reduced-lignin varieties for more sustainable sources of timber, paper and biofuels. (Don’t producers or editors vet the content of these programs?) Her actual objection concerned commercial tree plantations that contain a single genetic variety – that is, monoculture – but she wasn’t smart enough to understand that that issue is distinct from concerns about genetic engineering.

Among the worst of many atrocious segments on Living on Earth was a report on the two-year-long experiments performed by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini which purported to show harmful effects, including a high incidence of tumors, in laboratory rats fed genetically modified corn and/or water spiked with the commonly used herbicide, glyphosate. There is so much wrong with the experimental design that the conclusion is inescapable that the investigators intended to get a spurious, preordained result.

The experiments were immediately and universally condemned by the scientific community worldwide, and the research article was retracted by the journal that published it. However, in a segment misleadingly labeled, “New Study Links Genetically Modified Corn to Cancer,” Living on Earth reporter Bobby Bascomb reported the results uncritically.

Any biology graduate student could have seen immediately, it was a non-study. Bascomb concluded that “most scientists will tell you that we need to do more research. This study needs to be done again to see if it gets the same results.” Wrong. In fact, “most scientists” have shown no inclination at all to replicate experiments designed to yield uninterpretable or false results. For more than 25 years, there has been a consensus in the scientific community that the molecular techniques of genetic engineering are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier, less precise, less predictable techniques.

Not satisfied with the original flawed, irresponsible reporting on his program about the Séralini study–which was retracted by the journal that published it–14 months later Steve Curwood, the host of Living on Earth, then offered notorious ideologue Michael Hansen of Consumers Union an opportunity to criticize the retraction of the Séralini paper and to spout more misinformation about genetic engineering and the herbicide glyphosate. The know-nothing Hansen, a favorite of Living on Earth who lacks any scientific credentials related to genetic engineering, was back yet again in May with more of his propaganda. Some advice to Curwood and his producers: Heed the Rule of Holes – when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

It is particularly ironic that genetic engineering can contribute to the amelioration of precisely the kinds of environmental and human health challenges that NPR and its activist fellow-travelers claim to care about: greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable agriculture, the spraying of insecticides, the pollution of waterways from runoff of agricultural chemicals, food security for the poor, and conservation of water. The success of plants made with the new genetic engineering techniques is incontrovertible: Worldwide, these new varieties have provided “very significant net economic benefits at the farm level amounting to $18.8 billion in 2012 and $116.6 billion for the 17-year period” from 1996 to 2012, according to an authoritative report published earlier this year.

It seems to have escaped the management, producers and program hosts at NPR that not every issue has two sides. Or maybe they have simply abdicated their responsibility to ascertain where the weight of scientific evidence lies, instead attaching equal value to various points of view in a clumsy attempt to approximate fairness. If the latter, I have news for them: Decision-makers in academia and government as well as in the media make such decisions routinely. For example, in the 21st century we no longer argue about whether vaccines prevent childhood diseases; and who would contend that the administration of antibiotics to a patient with pneumonia or an infected heart valve is interfering with God’s Plan? But by continuing to pretend that certain viewpoints are legitimate long after they have been discredited, NPR programs mislead listeners and prolong pseudo-controversies.

The most recent example of NPR’s bias and ignorance was the airing on August 1 of a Commonwealth Club debate, which featured Andrew Kimbrell, one of the most dedicated, detestable and mendacious antagonists of genetic engineering applied to agriculture. Another of the four participants was Jessica Lundberg, an “organic farmer,” whose comments ranged from the dumb to the irrelevant. I had the feeling that she had stumbled into the wrong discussion. The piece was advertised thus: “Future severe weather is expected to put upward pressure on crop prices. That prospect raises thorny questions. Is there a role for seeds that are genetically modified to be drought resistant? Can 10 billion people be fed without GMO crops? Can organics feed a growing and hungry world?”

To pretend that these are unresolved questions that can be constructively illuminated by the chosen speakers is asinine, tantamount to debating topics like, “Do antibiotics save lives?” or “Can perpetual-motion machines give the economy a boost?” One imagines the organizers and broadcasters congratulating themselves on “good balance” by including not only a troglodyte activist but also Monsanto’s Chief Technology Officer and a farmer who actually handles compost every day, whereas all they did was to confuse listeners by perpetuating pseudo-controversy. The really thorny question is why NPR would broadcast the drivel offered by Living on Earth.

Donald Kennedy, president emeritus of Stanford University, chided those “who give up the difficult task of finding out where the weight of scientific evidence lies, and instead attach equal value to each side in an effort to approximate fairness. In this way, extraordinary opinions. . . are promoted to a form of respectability that approaches equal status.”

NPR’s coverage of these issues goes far beyond incompetence and ideological bias: It is shameful.

Amity Shlaes makes a subtle argument for why the federal government’s funding of NPR at even a low level is pernicious:

NPR’s staff and friends pretend that NPR isn’t such a big deal, that it’s just one creature in the great forest of talk radio, which happens to be funded–but only fractionally–by the federal government . . . But the reality is that NPR is not one among many. It’s a Tyrannosaurus rex, whose every move pounds the forest floor. The reason for this is not the money NPR receives from the government but the colophon of authority that federal subsidy confers. Having the government’s seal makes NPR respectable, and that, in turn, gives it access to customers, including tender young ones, whom Fox [News] can never reach.

M.I.T. meteorologist Richard Lindzen observed that science “provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.” The same is true of science-related journalism, and NPR is dulling that tool.

For many reasons–shoddy science reporting, relentless political bias and intellectual dishonesty among them–NPR should be delegitimized by the elimination of its federal funding. Come to think of it, individuals, too, might wish to reconsider whether NPR deserves their philanthropy.

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.

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