Ombud answers watchdog’s concerns about public radio’s America Abroad

By Mike Janssen

The ombudsman for America Abroad, a monthly public radio show covering foreign policy and international affairs, has responded to criticism from the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting regarding a recent show about developments in energy technology.

In a May 31 blog post, FAIR said that the April episode of America Abroad  “sounded like an infomercial” for fracking, the hydraulic fracturing process used in natural gas production. FAIR pointed out that the show was funded by the Qatar Foundation International, a philanthropy funded by the royal family of Qatar. Qatar is a leading exporter of natural gas — in 2011, it was the world’s top exporter, according to the International Gas Union.

FAIR also took issue with the appearance on the show of Henry Jacoby, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor involved with a study about the future of natural gas. The MIT Energy Initiative, which produced the report, includes oil and gas companies as members, and the study’s advisory committee included representatives from natural-gas industry groups. Representatives from environmental and renewable-energy organizations were also on the advisory committee.

FAIR urged its readers to ask Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s former ombudsman and ombud for America Abroad, to review the show and address the “multiple conflicts of interest.”

FAIR’s post prompted 477 emails,  Dvorkin wrote in his report, which was published online by America Abroad Media,  the company that produces the series. After reviewing the show, Dvorkin concluded that listeners were “extremely well served by this excellent and thoughtful documentary” but agreed that “there was an appearance of imbalance.”

“The program may have inadvertently underplayed the powerful implications of fracking and the emotional toll it is taking on Americans who are directly involved in dealing with the environmental consequences of abundant and cheap fossil fuels,” he wrote. “But this documentary was not a deliberate effort to minimize those concerns.”

Funders are also “at arm’s length” from America Abroad’s editorial direction, he wrote.

Quoted in Dvorkin’s report, America Abroad Producer Martha Little said that the purpose of the show was to examine the effects of growing natural-gas production on development of renewable energy, not to cover the environmental impact of fracking.

“Having said that, I do regret that we didn’t lay out early enough what fracking is as clearly and completely as we could have, and that includes the environmental risks,” Little wrote. “We do pay attention to this later in the program, but I would concede that we could have spent a bit more time outlining both the risks and rewards of the new technology.”

In his report, Dvorkin did not specifically address perceptions of editorial influence created by the Qatar Foundation’s financial support. But in an email to Current, he said the funder’s backing “doesn’t worry me any more than any other corporate and philanthropic supporters would. It’s up to management to ensure that there is a proper mixture of funders and that whatever support there is, doesn’t influence the reporting.”

Distributed by PRI, America Abroad airs on more than 100 public radio stations, according to its website.

Dvorkin’s report on the fracking program is his second for the series. Last year he addressed several complaints that an episode of the show took a biased look at global concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

In 2011, the Christian Science Monitor reported on America Abroad Media’s use of U.S. State Department funding to pay Pakistani journalists reporting from the U.S. for media outlets in Pakistan.  The funding arrangement was not made clear to the public at the time. Aaron Lobel, president of AAM, replied in a letter on the organization’s website.

This report was updated to include a link to the ombudsman’s report after America Abroad Media published it online.

  • Bill Tutuki

    Wow I remember 15 years ago FAIR had a talk show on KPFA a Pacifica O&O in the Bay Area. The Problem here is that NPR, PRI, APM are not supposed to act like Pacifica to begin with.

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