Call it the one-day news story that should have been a blockbuster. The Associated Press reported that “a group the White House recently identified as a key surrogate in selling the Iran nuclear deal gave NPR [National Public Radio] $100,000 last year to help it report on the pact and related issues….”
That group was the Ploughshares Fund, which says it seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate international nuclear stockpiles. Ploughshares contributed “at least $700,000” to NPR to fund the network’s coverage of national security issues since 2005, AP’s Bradley Klapper wrote. (See “Group that helped sell Iran nuke deal also funded media,” AP, May 20, 2016.)
The chief of staff of one U.S. senator who had opposed the Iran agreement told CAMERA the Ploughshares revelation probably was not “the smoking gun” that finally would prompt congressional examination of NPR’s performance. Public broadcasters are required by the Telecommunications Act to demonstrate “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” Congress has not enforced this statutory provision since the act’s passage in 1967 and amendment in 1991.
Something more in the way of public attention apparently would be needed to give the revelation legislative traction, the chief of staff said.
That “something more” might be found in a close reading of NPR Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen’s account of her review, “On Ethics: Did Ploughshares Grant Skew NPR’s Iran Deal Coverage?” posted at NPR’s Web site May 27, 2016. Her short answer was “no.”
J Street initially opposed U.S. sanctions on Iran for its suspected illegal nuclear weapons programs, then lobbied in favor of the 2015 pact between Iran and the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. AP reported that J Street received $576,000 from Ploughshares.
CAMERA cited AP’s Klapper in “A Guide to the Perplexed: Ploughshares and the Iran Deal Echo Chamber,” in a detailed “SNAPSHOT” blog post May 25. The item noted the wire service report was “important because Ben Rhodes, a national security advisor who works at the White House, described Ploughshares … as part of a pro-negotiations ‘echo chamber’ that he helped create and use to manipulate public opinion.
“He created the echo chamber to promote support for the diplomatic agreement that relaxed sanctions on Iran in exchange for promises that it would dismantle parts of its nuclear program ….” says the “SNAPSHOT,” by Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA’s Christian media senior research analyst. “NPR denies the money it got from Ploughshares had any impact on its coverage of the Iran deal.”
Doesn’t substantial funding from a partisan source for news reporting of an issue advocated by that source undermine the Telecommunications Act requirement for strict adherence to objectivity and balance, or at least create a strong appearance of doing so?
NPR Ombudsman Jensen and assistant Anne Johnson “looked at the 254 on-air newsmagazine stories from Jan. 1, 2015 to the present that we categorized as directly related to the Iran deal.” Of those segments, they classified “118 as neutral; they were mostly NPR reporters talking to NPR hosts about developments in the lead-up to the deal or its implementation. … The remaining 136 stories present a viewpoint of a source either for or against the deal. Of those voices … 160 people were quoted speaking in favor of the deal and 102 were against it.”
Jensen found “NPR talked twice to [President Barack] Obama about the deal and twice to one of its chief opponents, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” And “a large chunk of the voices opposed … came from Congress.” This even though Rep. Mike Pompeo (R.-Kan.), an opponent, complained of being turned down after requesting an interview because, he said, the network repeatedly aired Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Cal.), a supporter.
The firewall smolders
Jensen said NPR “has a strict firewall … between those who give it money to do its journalism work and the newsroom; i.e., no funder influences the content of NPR’s reporting, it contends.” She said “the newsroom decides what it wants to cover and the development side of the organization seeks financial support for that, not the other way around.”
But, “in this case, NPR’s money came from one side of a very partisan debate on a specific issue to fund reporting on a specific topic. And the money was not from a sponsor who in exchange would get on-air credit; in this case the sponsor money was going directly to support the reporting.”
Jensen acknowledged that “what critics are legitimately asking is whether there was a break in the firewall, since there is certainly an appearance that NPR opened itself up to be used as a propaganda organ of the administration via its reporting grant from Ploughshares.” Her answer, after reviewing the coverage and speaking with Michael Oreskes, the network’s senior vice president of news and editorial director, and with NPR President Jarl Mohn—to whom she reports, was “NPR did not accept money to report favorably on the Iran deal. There was no pay for play.”
Neither the ombudsman, Oreskes nor Mohn seemed to have considered, at least according to Jensen’s report, that Ploughshares decided years ago to subsidize NPR coverage of issues the fund advocates because it recognized that overall the network already was sympathetic. That is, not objective, but biased in Ploughshares favor.
So “pay-for-play” was not necessary. Rather, an apparent conflict of interest and potential violation of the Telecommunications Act’s objectivity and balance obligation existed due to post facto reward: “you played well; your pay follows,” year after year.
Jensen cites Oreskes and her own analysis to support the position that “a good deal of NPR’s coverage was purely explanatory.” However, anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom knows that how the press frames an issue, how it explains “what’s really true here,” in Oreskes’ words, depends on reporters and editors’ perspective—what they already think is “really true here” and who their regular, not necessarily diverse or authoritative, sources are.
Not an isolated case but a pattern
Good journalists are open to new facts and sources as they dig into
a story, and may “reframe” their understanding of an issue and “what’s true here” as they work. But given Ploughshares’ donations of $700,000 over a decade for NPR reporting on issues dear to the fund, “reframing” may not have occurred. In coverage of the Iran deal in particular, the network Plougshares assembled and that functioned as part of presidential advisor Ben Rhodes’ “echo chamber,” did not have to shape NPR’s perspective. It just helped subsidize existing tendencies, even if individual reporters and editors never heard of Ploughshares.
“The coalition that Ploughshares assembled to push the deal was astonishing, and it would likely have been almost impossible to cover the story without talking to those sources,” Jensen wrote. “Many of them were quoted on NPR, without any acknowledgement of Plougshares’ involvement.”
To the ombudsman and NPR executives, this was more an internal, technical failure to provide transparency and a journalistic shortcoming in pressing an issue. Network President Mohn told Jensen “the issues in my mind that are troubling are process questions, questions of disclosure on the air.” But “did we do a story because we were told to do a story? The answer is absolutely not.”
That misses the point: If the advertising department has scheduled a special supplement on restaurant week, the newsroom will prove unlikely to publish an expose of health code violations then. Ploughshares didn’t have to bribe NPR to cover the Iran deal in a manner favorable to the fund’s objectives. It subsidized the network because it anticipated that kind of coverage.
The Ploughshares-NPR revelation loudly echoed a previous embarrassment, after which some network executives departed. CAMERA’s “NPR Execs Dine with Fake Islamists,” March 8, 2011 highlighted a “sting” video in which, duped by an ostensible fund-raising opportunity, public radio representatives managed to seem amenable as anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiments were expressed:
“In a ‘sting’ video made earlier this year, NPR professionals are revealed expressing views they might otherwise have concealed.
Blast from NPR’s past
“Thinking they were dining with two representatives of a Muslim Brotherhood front group and potential big donors, Ronald Schiller, head of National Public Radio’s nonprofit foundation, and Betsy Liley, network director of institutional giving, did their best to be agreeable.
“Told by imitation Islamist ‘Ibrahim Kasaam’ (at about 7:45) that some of his friends refer to NPR as ‘National Palestinian Radio,’ Schiller and Liley laugh. Liley adds, ‘Oh, is that right. That’s good. I like that.’
“When ‘Kasaam’ says to Schiller that ‘Jews do kind of control the media or, I mean, certainly the Zionists and the people who have the interests in swaying media coverage toward a favorable direction of Israel,’ the NPR executive neither challenges nor refutes the insinuation, nor does he simply get up and leave. Instead, he continues eating and nods his head vaguely.”
The fund-raising from fake Islamists episode embarrassed NPR. Schiller and Liley soon left for other jobs. But the Ploughshares revelation finds the network congratulating itself on the strength of its editorial/fund-raising firewall, tentatively committing itself mainly to “greater transparency.” In other words, NPR insists the problem isn’t news coverage subsidies from partisan sources, but mainly the appearance of a problem. The network ought to ask itself why certain partisans find donating to it so consistently in their own self-interest. And if it won’t, Congress should.
(Note: AP’s May 20 dispatch stated that “Congress supplies NPR with a small portion of its funding.” Network executives have pointed to one or two percent received through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for annual operating expenses.
(In fact, as The Washington Post pointed out in 2010, “the federal government provides roughly 15 percent of the revenue of public radio and TV stations, although less than two percent of NPR’s annual budget is directly subsidized by tax monies. The rest comes from corporate grants and programming fees from hundreds of NPR member stations. These stations, in turn, receive direct financial support” from CPB, “the entity set up by Congress in 1967 to pass federal funds to stations.”
(In addition, Post media reporter Paul Farhi added, “stations affiliated with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS, the television network), and with NPR also have received tens of millions of dollars from CPB in recent years for non-annual operating costs, including infrastructure conversion from analog to digital transmission.”
(In fiscal 2014, CPB’s budget totaled $445.5 million, of which at least $99 million went to public radio in some form. NPR’s consolidated Internal Revenue filings for 2014 and 2015 indicated annual income of approximately $209 million and expenses of $203 million.)