Current Online

Policy reversed: nations can't buy
underwriting from NPR

Originally published by Current, March 26, 2001
By Mike Janssen

NPR has decided to ban underwriting by sovereign governments after an on-air funding credit for Kuwait pushed listeners and other observers to question the practice.

Though announced in that familiar nasal tone, the credit certainly had a way of jumping out at you. Airing from Feb. 12 to March 4 [2001], it read: "Support for NPR comes from the state of Kuwait, in memory of the tenth anniversary of Kuwait's liberation. On the Web at kuwaitthanksamerica.org."

NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says NPR accepted Kuwait's money, an undisclosed amount, despite executives' concerns that it would look like a conflict of interest. "Development spoke to [news veep] Bruce Drake and to me," he said. "We both thought it was problematic, at which point it went to upper management, where the decision was made."

Dvorkin later received over 100 comments, which he said is a "reasonable bubble" amidst the steady stream of mail he handles. In his Feb. 15 "Media Matters" column on NPR's website, Dvorkin reprinted several letters and came down against the practice.

Dvorkin and NPR both said that the underwriting, which went to NPR's general operating fund, never created an actual conflict of interest by violating the firewall between news and development. "But just as important as the reality of influence, is the appearance of influence," Dvorkin wrote.

"Kuwait remains in the news. NPR reports from time to time from Iraq. Because of the public trust that exists between NPR and its listeners, every effort should be made to ensure that trust is never doubted. NPR, in my opinion, made an error in judgment, in this case, by accepting underwriting from [Kuwait]."

NPR President Kevin Klose announced at a March 8 [2001] board meeting that the network would revisit its policy. Shortly thereafter, NPR decided to end the practice.

"There wasn't any question of the independence or integrity of NPR News, which has always been fully protected and insulated from the influence of underwriting," NPR said in a statement. "The guidelines have been revised to ensure that the reality of NPR's mission meets the public's perception of who we are."

In 1999, NPR accepted underwriting from Germany that commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall, but no one complained, Dvorkin said. This time around, NPR may have fallen prey to bad timing. As the credit aired, journalists and broadcasters were gasping over the high salary offered to Christopher Lydon, former host of WBUR's The Connection. Furthermore, NPR's decision to sell billboard advertising space on a wall of its Washington, D.C., headquarters sparked a minor controversy when lawmakers and the public both expressed doubts over the network's commitment to noncommercialism.

The Kuwait credit gave critics more material. "I'm astounded," said media critic Robert McChesney in a Hartford Courant story. "Every journalist at NPR needs to look at this and resign in protest."

"[H]ow is this possible?" asked NPR listener Scott Bonner from Boise, Idaho, in a letter to Dvorkin. "I would think that, in order to remain an objective and impartial source of news, NPR would not allow foreign governments to fund any of its programs (particularly news programs) . . . Are you sure this is the route that NPR wants to take?" Other listeners questioned Kuwait's human rights record and treatment of women.

The credit also surprised Columbia University professor and former NPR news executive John Dinges, despite the fact that he wrote NPR's policy on the subject, which didn't prohibit the practice. Though the policy barred countries from underwriting specific news coverage, Dinges today regrets that it went no further. "[The Kuwait credit] is a typical example of where loopholes get you in trouble," he said. "I think to anybody listening, it just has a pretty clear appearance of a possible conflict of interest."

Dvorkin acknowledged that NPR's listeners often worry about possible conflicts of interest caused by underwriting. He even gets mail about underwriting credits on local stations. "I think underwriting has to be accepted that doesn't call into question the integrity of NPR and public broadcasting," he said. "That, I think, is something that has to be considered by both local and network underwriters."


. To Current's home page
. Document: NPR underwriting guidelines from 1999.
. Outside link: Ombudsman Dvorkin's website column on the Kuwait incident.

Web page posted March 28, 2001, corrected May 1, 2001
Current
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
E-mail: webatcurrent.org
301-270-7240
Copyright 2001