NPR's Lack of Transparency

Jan 06, 2015

NPR prides itself on its transparency. It has its own ombudsman to handle complaints over any lack of transparency as well as its own ethics handbook to deal with issues involving accuracy, fairness, completeness, honesty, independence, impartiality and transparency.

Here is what the NPR ethics handbook says about transparency:

To inspire confidence in our journalism, it is critical that we give the public the tools to evaluate our work. We reveal as much as we practically can about how we discover and verify the facts we present. We strive to make our decision-making process clear to the public, especially when we find ourselves wrestling with tough choices. We disclose any relationships, whether with partners or funders, that might appear to influence our coverage.

But one member of the public, Jim Weiss of Marathon, New York, doesn't believe NPR is as forthcoming as it should be in providing those tools to evaluate its work:

This inquiry is about NPR - specifically its underwriters.  Underwriters are listed in NPR's annual report.  The most recent annual report NPR makes available on-line is 2011.  When asked for more recent or current annual reports, the NPR ombudsman directs me to a Financial Statements web page, which has only very vague and general information. Other than that, they refuse to engage my request.  In your opinion, is this an acceptable degree of transparency and accountability?

I told Mr. Weiss that if he were correct, then no, this would not be an acceptable degree of transparency and accountability.

Turns out he is correct.

First it is difficult to find the financial information on NPR's website unless one knows where to look.  One must first click on the "about" link at the bottom of the web page. Then once must click on a vague link that says "support and sponsor." Next, one must click on "NPR Foundation" and then click on "NPR Financial Reports."

To its credit, NPR does list many financial reports including its IRS 990 Filings (as required by federal law) through 2013 and its audited financial statements through fiscal year 2014.

But inexplicably, the most recent annual report and donor list is from 2011.

Given that it is now 2015, that is hard to justify, particularly because it is in those reports that list corporate sponsors and institutional donors.

Asked about this, NPR spokeswoman Caitlin Sanders delivered this statement:

"NPR's most recent IRS filings and audited financial statements are always available on NPR.org. Our goal is to also have brief annual statements that present that financial information in a simpler format along with other related information. We're running behind in doing so but expect to post the latest statements this month. We regret the delay."

Mr. Weiss originally contacted NPR in early November asking to have access to more recent annual reports.

He received this response from NPR's audience and community relations:

Thank you for contacting NPR, and thank you for your interest.

We regret that you are unable to see the most updated report for NPR. Our staff is currently working to post that information in the coming weeks. We do not have a timeline but we encourage you to check back regularly for updates.

The request for the annual reports is not the first issue Mr. Weiss has had with NPR.

Back in 2013 Mr. Weiss wrote to NPR concerned about its accepting funds from America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). He wanted to know how ANGA was selected as an underwriter.  Here is the text of that lengthy letter:

Over the past three years NPR has been accepting underwriting funds from America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), in exchange for which NPR airs "spots" that depict ANGA/natural gas as a benign agent.  ANGA's underwriting spots promote the use of natural gas as environmentally friendly, and present to the listener a superficial and misleading picture of an extremely problematic and controversial issue.   Many NPR listeners around the country have objected strongly to ANGA sponsorship.

The debate over natural gas is intense covering air, water, socioeconomic impacts, climate, health impacts, politics, fuel costs, energy independence, etc.  For each argument pro there is a countering con.  What is not debatable is that natural gas is a fossil fuel and that large-scale development of this resource (for example, as the transportation fuel promoted in ANGA spots) requires a massive buildout of the extreme extraction technology of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking".  (This aspect is never mentioned in the ANGA spots.)

My focus in this essay is not on the environmental debate but rather the corporate practices of NPR that have accompanied ANGA sponsorship.  I have investigated the relationship between NPR and ANGA and have learned a great deal.  But what is more interesting is what I have not learned due to the persistent evasion, obfuscation, and secrecy with which NPR has responded when my questions become too probing.  Their behavior is nicely summed up with a term used by On the Media host Brooke Gladstone in her recent coverage of obfuscation and denial by the Department of Homeland Security - "DHS opacity."  In this case the term would be "NPR opacity."  It is important to bear in mind that the overriding environmental issue for human existence is climate change, to which the debate over natural gas is central.  But the main focus of this essay is the corporate behavior of NPR.  It is broken down into four key questions:

1.     Does NPR have a policy for evaluating the suitability of a potential underwriter?

This question was the subject of a dialogue by email between Ombudsman assistants and me over the course of two years.  Every time I posed this question I received the same response: NPR maintains a strict Firewall between sponsors and news operations.  Coverage is thus objective and neutral.  The Firewall policy is clearly articulated in NPR documents available online, including the Ombudsman's Blog and the NPR Ethics Handbook.  Unfortunately the Firewall has nothing to do with how potential underwriters are evaluated and selected.  How then are sponsors selected?  There two possibilities.  One is that NPR has no such policy - and won't acknowledge that - which would allow any entity, no matter how reprehensible, to become a sponsor.  That scenario is unlikely.  The second possibility is that NPR does have a policy, or at least some selection criteria, but refuses to reveal this information - a deliberate choice of opacity over transparency. 

2.     Does The Firewall ensure neutrality by NPR on the issue of natural gas?

While many environmental activists would strongly disagree that NPR's coverage of natural gas has been objective and neutral, I would be willing to accept that assertion if for no other reason than to set it aside because it is irrelevant to this analysis.  However, consider the following text from the NPR website (http://www.npr.org/about-npr/178660742/public-radio-finances).

"Sponsorships: Halo Effect

Corporate sponsors are interested in exposure to the well-educated, relatively affluent NPR audience ...sponsors also value association with the NPR brand. ... Corporate sponsors find value in the 'halo effect' of a positive association with the NPR brand."

The Firewall notwithstanding, the simple fact that NPR airs many hundreds of superficial innocuous sounding blurbs promoting natural gas lends credibility and legitimacy (and approval by implication) to a technology that is fraught with problems and conflict.  For NPR to assert that the Firewall absolves it of any influence in the public perception of natural gas is disingenuous at best.  By so doing NPR has changed the Firewall into a stonewall.

3.     How does ANGA compare with other NPR corporate sponsors?

The 2010 NPR Annual Report lists more than 150 corporate sponsors.  (Annual reports are available online for the years 2001-2010.  Why is 2010 the last year for which annual reports/sponsor lists are posted?)  It is hard to categorize such a diverse sponsor list but it could be roughly divided into: commercial, educational, health related, and charitable organizations.  While admittedly a subjective call, in my view no other sponsor (with the possible exception of Monsanto) comes close to the degree of controversy surrounding ANGA.  And when viewed in the context of climate change and the future of the planet, ANGA is in a category by itself.  What criteria, other than money, could cause NPR to bend over so far to accommodate such an outlier?

4.     Does NPR apply its Underwriting Guidelines to ANGA as it does to other sponsors?

In its first round of underwriting spots (2011) ANGA was identified as the sponsoring entity.  In the current run (2013) the sponsor is simply stated as "brought to you by America's natural gas."  There is no mention of ANGA.  (The spot concludes with a link to "Think About It.org", a front for ANGA.)

Here is a quote from the Underwriting Guidelines:

"NPR underwriting credits must contain the legal name of the underwriter, to be read immediately after the standard opening phrase, 'Support for NPR comes from NPR member stations and…' "

Clearly, "America's natural gas" is not a legal name.   It would be as if a funder were "America's water", or "America's air."   Are there any other sponsors who have been relieved of the requirement to be identified by their legal names?   Why has ANGA received such preferential treatment?

I am quite frustrated and disappointed with NPR's opacity.  Their refusal to be forthcoming in regard to their underwriting practices does not befit an organization that purports to be "public."      Clearly NPR is a world-class news operation but that does not justify hubris.  It is easy for them to ignore me.  Perhaps someone with more status in the world of media and/or public broadcasting may take an interest and be willing to challenge NPR's questionable underwriting ethics, and have greater success in getting to the truth.  Thanks for your attention.

 Isabel Lara, another spokeswoman for NPR, provided this response to Mr. Weiss' letter:

The guidelines for corporate underwriting and the Board approved open access policy are found here:http://www.npr.org/about-npr/186948703/corporate-sponsorship

In addition, the Ombudsman has opined on the influence of corporate underwriters on the editorial process:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2014/10/03/351810802/from-the-left-the-misguided-criticism-of-npr-s-climate-march-coverage

The issue of corporate underwriting and the influence it may or may not have on the editorial process is a complex issue that deserves attention. I believe that both NPR and its ombudsman is cognizant of the potential for conflicts of interest and that the "Firewall" does, in most cases, keep corporate sponsorship away from the newsroom.

However, Mr. Weiss does raise some good points in his letter that using the phrase "America's Natural Gas" sponsoring a program could lead to confusion. It is something that NPR and its ombudsman should be vigilant in terms of monitoring.

From my perspective, I am more concerned about the lack of transparency when it comes to posting the annual reports and making them easier to access. Such postings will allow concerned listeners like Mr. Weiss to more fully investigate the conflicts he believes exist.