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Ombudsman Exposes Woman-on-Woman Crime at NPR

In a media world gone messy, National Public Radio provides a steady stream of thoughtful, provocative programs that eschew the soundbite in favor of meaty discussion and insight.

I generally feel like I have learned something after spending time with the station, so I am here to mostly praise NPR not bury it.

As a media-watcher I find myself listening to the station a bit more critically these days. It's no secret that opponents of the station have long held that there is a pronounced liberal lean to its programming, and is therefore one-sided.

I used to think the same thing -- though I thought it to be more of a slight tilt -- until I started listening to the station regularly.

I hear no such thing.

I am satisfied that when dealing with politically sensitive issues, NPR makes an effort to balance the playing field. Their hosts and editors seem to smartly avoid the yahoos on the political fringes, and I say hooray for that.

I will take a quick exit from the point I am meandering to, for this vent, though:

My biggest problem with the station is that it has somehow managed to talk beneath the average sports fan's level. I understand that many people who listen to the station aren't big sports enthusiasts like myself, but that is still no excuse for the station's often shallow approach to the subject by some of its high-brow 'experts.'

These folks talk to us as if we were children that needed our hands held as we cross the street. I cringe when NPR talks sports.

So, NPR, give us sports fans a little more in the way of the SportingNews, and a lot less Weekly Reader. Or maybe it's best if you avoid the subject altogether. I, for one, wouldn't hold it against you.

That bit of business out of the way, I want to get back to something else I didn't hear on the station, in addition to political posturing: the lack of women experts on its various shows throughout the day.

In a report on its website dated on April 2, the station's ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, submits an in-depth presentation that concludes NPR leans heavily on men to appear as commentators on its array of shows throughout the week.

Again, I never even noticed this in the thousands of hours I have spent with the station, but the numbers Shepard produced are eye-opening. This from the report:

"With the aid of NPR librarian Hannah Sommers, we compiled a list of regular commentators, who are not NPR employees but are paid to appear on air. There are 12 outside commentators who appeared at least 20 times in the last 15 months. The only woman is former NPR staffer, Cokie Roberts (51 times), who is on ME (Morning Edition) most Mondays talking politics."

And according to Shepard things "are equally disturbing" when addressing the gender of news sources in their reporters' stories:

"We also looked at the number of people from outside NPR who were interviewed by NPR news shows, or whose voices appeared in reporters' stories. For this analysis, we examined 104 shows, using a 'constructed week'* sampling technique from April 13, 2009 to Jan. 9, 2010. NPR listeners heard 2,502 male sources and 877 female sources on the shows we sampled. In other words, only 26 percent of the 3,379 voices were female, while 74 percent were male."

Shepard then produces a number of charts that illustrates this male domination in great detail. It's indisputable, but there is another interesting thing Shepard points out early in her thorough report:

"Three out of the five hosts of its (NPR's) biggest shows -- Morning Edition and All Things Considered -- are women. The CEO and the head of the news department are women, as are many other top executives throughout the company."

I have long advocated that diversity -- both on staff and in news-sourcing -- is a key ingredient of producing accurate, well-rounded journalism. I have also thought it was a lot easier said than done, and was never satisfied with my performance in this regard back when I was in charge of such things.

So today I feel a little better, but mostly surprised, that the women in charge at NPR don't seem to be doing much better than I did.

As Shepard types: "The news is not encouraging, though NPR is trying to do something about it.

I'll be listening.

(Got a tip, a gripe, or some kudos? Send 'em along.)