Has NPR's Adam Davidson Betrayed His Listeners? Serious Conflict of Interest Issues Exposed
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While Adam Davidson has recently come under increasing scrutiny for using his NPR platform to promote the narrow interests of the super-wealthy in this country, little attention has thus far been given to Davidson's corruption—his numerous financial conflicts of interest that seriously undermine his claims to being a journalist, and instead reveal Davidson as a glorified product spokesman for his Wall Street sponsors.
In early 2009, just a few months after Planet Money was launched, NPR announced it had secured Ally Bank (formerly GMAC) as the show's exclusive sponsor. It was an unusual setup for NPR, and unusual (and highly dubious) for anything that called itself journalism, because it meant that a major, troubled financial institution was the only source of money for a news program about finance. At the time that the unusual agreement was signed, Planet Money was the only NPR program underwritten by a single exclusive sponsor. The arrangement raised eyebrows and would have been unthinkable before the crisis—but even by post-crisis funding arrangements, Planet Money's deal with Ally Bank stood out as such an obvious violation of basic journalism standards that even Ad Age, the advertising industry's trade publication, was taken aback by the "close alignment of message and news program."
To understand why Davidson's arrangement with Ally Bank is so odious, a little background is needed. Ally Bank is a subsidiary of Ally Financial, a giant financial services company formerly known as GMAC. There's a good reason why GMAC would have wanted to change its name to "Ally Financial" after the financial collapse: The bank is one of the biggest mortgage servicers in the country, and has been one of the very worst offenders in foreclosure fraud and in the very same subprime fraud that Davidson whitewashed as a "blameless" phenomenon. GMAC deserves far more blame—and jail time—than any of the subprime borrowers it fleeced and ruined. Since GMAC collapsed in late 2008, it has received more than $17 billion taxpayer bailout funds in a series of bailouts. As of August 1, 2012, 74% of Ally Financial was still owned by the U.S. Government. [ 1 ]
At the time Ally signed its sponsorship agreement with Planet Money, the bank was being investigated across the country for foreclosure fraud, robo-signing fraud, and student loan fraud. Even as bad bailed-out banks go, GMAC/Ally is considered one of the worst, most tainted of them all.
Planet Money's relationship with Ally is a textbook example of “conflict of interest" of the sort every journalist is taught to shun. The bank had a clear and demonstrable interest in Planet Money's coverage of the financial industry, especially issues that affected the bank’s bottom line. As Planet Money's sole sponsor at a time when NPR funds were falling, Ally obviously wielded considerable power.
After Davidson sprang a vicious and bizarre smear-attack on Elizabeth Warren in 2009, some NPR listeners started to get wise to Planet Money's corruption problem, and made their concerns known. Following months of complaints from readers pointing to the conflict-of-interest and the way Planet Money's segments dovetailed with the banking lobby's own propaganda—and with Ally's interests—NPR’s Ombudsman was forced to issue a public statement on the Ally- Planet Money relationship. Perhaps not surprisingly, the NPR Ombudsman decided that listeners' concerns over the conflict-of-interest were "cynical"—as if the problem lay in listeners' psychology, rather than in Planet Money's violation of basic journalism ethics. The NPR Ombudsman went further, arguing essentially that if listeners who complained about corruption weren't cynical, then they were ignorant.
Despite Davidson's long experience in sales and underwriting for public radio, he claimed he was out of the loop when it came to the deal his own show, Planet Money, cut with its sole sponsor, Ally Bank: "I have nothing to do with the underwriting stuff. We don't pay any attention to the fact that they are a sponsor. We wouldn't for a second give them any special treatment — positive or negative."