Traditional Values Coalition accepts new NPR apology
Originally published in
Current, Feb. 10, 2003
NPR gave its second on-air apology to the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC) Feb. 6 for a January 2002 story that seemingly linked the conservative coalition to the anthrax investigation on Capitol Hill. Reading from a statement from NPR management, Morning Edition Host Bob Edwards said the "report violated NPR's editorial principles."
Edwards said no one ever told NPR that the TVC was a suspect and that the network never found facts to suggest the coalition played a role in the mailings. "NPR deeply regrets this mistake and apologizes for any false impression that the Coalition was in any way involved in the investigation," he said.
After the apology TVC issued a press statement Feb. 7 declaring the matter was "amicably resolved," according to TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty.
In July, NPR President Kevin Klose apologized to Lafferty during a House hearing about pubcasting. She refused to accept the apology, calling it "mere theatrics." NPR put its first correction on the air after the story aired. [See story below.]
Originally published in Current,
July 22, 2002
Two days after Republican congressmen chided NPR for liberal bias at a House hearing, they were taking PBS to task for plans by Sesame Street producers to introduce an HIV-positive Muppet to their South African edition.
Pubcasters had looked forward to making their case for greater DTV aid at the July 10 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, but legislators spent much of the time whipping NPR for airing a report that appeared to connect the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian group, with the FBI anthrax investigation.
The last time the system’s top brass came before the House committee that oversees CPB, in July 1999, legislators scolded public TV for the donor list scandal. Republicans were outraged that some stations had been swapping membership lists with Democratic groups.
Taking his turn on the hot seat, NPR President Kevin Klose offered his "personal and professional apology" to the TVC and its executive director, Andrea Lafferty. She refused to accept the apology, calling it "mere theatrics," and urged Congress to strip NPR of its funding. (NPR receives relatively little CPB money directly, but its member stations receive millions.)
In the NPR report—broadcast on Morning Edition Jan. 22  — science reporter David Kestenbaum examined similarities between the search for the anthrax mailers and the Unabomber. The report suggested that the TVC was an example of the kind of suspect the FBI might be investigating to find who mailed anthrax to the offices of Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). NPR later aired a correction, saying it was "inappropriate" to mention the TVC in the report. The correction was also posted to its website.
Because more than 8 million people heard the report, Lafferty said, NPR owes the TVC more than an apology. The group’s lawyers are negotiating with the network to work out a settlement, she said. "This does not end with the hearing," she added.
Several Democrats on the House subcommittee defended NPR against the attacks. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said controversy surrounds everything that gets public funding and called public broadcasting one of America’s "crown jewels."
Eshoo said Lafferty’s reaction to the call by an NPR reporter was "over the top." The day of the call, the TVC issued a press release charging that NPR was in the pocket of the Democratic Party. The story aired three weeks later.
But most Republicans joined Lafferty in chastising NPR. Billy Tauzin (R-La.)—chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, parent of the telecom subcommittee—said he and many colleagues feel "conflicted" about public broadcasting. While they appreciate most of its noncommercial and educational programming—especially for kids—they are troubled by the "liberal bias" they see and hear in other kinds of shows. He admonished pubcasters not to make fun of conservative values held by many Americans.
A stalwart defender of pubcasting, Ed Markey (Mass.), ranking Democrat on the telecom subcommittee, said PBS and NPR were an "electronic oasis," and if pubcasting didn’t exist, Congress would be calling for its creation. He teased colleagues on the right by asserting that pubcasting is too conservative, with commentators such as George Will, Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, and Oscar the Grouch.
Next: a prostitute Muppet?
Muppets came in for scorn after the Washington Post reported July 12 that the Sesame Workshop will introduce an HIV-positive Muppet in its South African version of Sesame Street, and was considering a similar character for its U.S. show. A spokeswoman later said the company had no such plans for the American show, but by then the issue had ignited.
Tauzin and Commerce Committee colleagues wrote PBS expressing their dismay. "We are concerned that what may be fitting for viewers of Sesame Street in South Africa . . . may not be appropriate for children in the United States," the members wrote.
Fox News Channel talk show host Bill O’Reilly gave the producers no credit for their judgment. "If this came to America, I know Congress would have cut off the funding for PBS. And that’s why they’re backing away," he said on his program July 15. "It’s not because they’re responsible people over there. Those people have an agenda a mile long."
O’Reilly objected to an HIV-positive Muppet even on the show in South Africa, where the disease is rampant and often spread by heterosexual prostitution. "Well, if it’s a social problem that has to be dealt with . . . have the prostitute Muppet," O’Reilly said. "You know, where does it end?"
Every Sesame Street episode is crafted by a team of educators and child development experts, said Charlotte Cole, v.p. for education and research at Sesame Workshop. The South African version, Takalani Sesame, is a co-production with the South African Department of Education, the national broadcaster SABC, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
AIDS in South Africa is a fact of life, Cole said. One in nine people living there has HIV or AIDS, and 15 percent of children under the age of 15 are expected to lose a parent to the disease by 2015, she said. The Muppet there will be a 5-year-old orphan.
The show will not deal with how she got the virus or how it’s transmitted.
The show will try to remove the stigma of HIV infection for its audience in the 3-6 age range. One script demonstrates that it’s okay to play with HIV-positive kids and have physical contact with them, Cole said. "This is the right thing to be doing in South Africa," she added.
Neither CPB nor PBS provides funding for Takalani Sesame, PBS President Pat Mitchell wrote to Tauzin. The American Sesame Street received $2.8 million from CPB this year, $2 million from the Department of Education-administered Ready to Learn program, and $1.3 million from PBS programming dues. Sesame Workshop reimbursed $1.6 million to PBS from associated program proceeds, Mitchell wrote.
Mitchell said she was not aware of plans for the South African character when she testified before Congress July 10 and that other programs—targeted at older kids—dealt with issues of sexuality and disease prevention.
Oh, yeah, and about DTV . . .
Despite bias complaints by some, virtually every member of the House panel expressed support for helping pubcasters convert to digital.
Even Joe Barton (R-Texas), who said he’d vote to end CPB funding if he could, agreed that Congress ought to help with paying for digital facilities. Another Republican, Charles Bass (N.H.), said the hearing ought to focus on digital conversion, not opinions of programming.
Beyond the TVC flap, APTS President John Lawson told Current, the key outcome of the July 10 hearing was that nearly every member who spoke recognized the need for more digital funding.
Lawson hopes to secure the Commerce Committee’s blessing to pursue digital money through an authorization bill. The committee was irked last year when pubcasters went around it to secure $25 million in digital funding through the appropriations committee.
Pubcasters expect their total conversion costs to be about $1.7 billion. To date, they have raised nearly half of that from state and private sources. They hope Congress will provide about $550 million more to add to the $158 million it has already given.
"Digital conversion is a life and death issue for public broadcasting," Lawson told Congress. Without additional funding, between 20 and 30 percent of PTV stations won’t meet next May’s deadline. "It’s time now for Congress to do its part," he said.
In several states such as Florida, Texas and Wyoming, state support is contingent upon a federal contribution. If Congress doesn’t come through with aid, the state money disappears.
While asking for more DTV funding, Lawson said he tried to smooth over a "number of missteps" pubcasters have made with the committee over the past few years.
In particular, Lawson tried to soothe the concerns of Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who was unhappy with public broadcasting’s explanation of how it distributes CPB funds and assesses PBS dues.
Reading from a private memo to APTS members, Burr asked what Lawson meant when he referred to a planned congressional hearing as "meddling" in public TV’s affairs.
Lawson said he wasn’t questioning congressional interest in how CPB distributes its funding but trying to protect PBS’s right as an independent nonprofit to set its dues without interference. Station grants ought never to be linked to PBS programming dues, Lawson said.
Lafferty, who accepted NPR's apology in February 2003, was bitterly critical of the network during a congressional hearing seven months earlier, pictured. At left: NPR President Kevin Klose. (Photo: Current.)
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