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Why Some Public Radio Supporters Won't Be Donating to NPR This Year

On-air fracking promotions have left some listeners questioning their contributions.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

For more than 20 years, Dennis Higgins of Otego, NY has donated to NPR. Last year he gave about $500. But this year, he was uneasy after hearing NPR continuously plug the American Natural Gas Alliance, a fracking advocacy organization.

“NPR has a little plug,” Higgins said. “Something like: ‘To our supporter ANGA and their commitment to the environment and jobs in the United States.’”

Higgins is an assistant professor of computer science and mathematics at SUNY Oneonta. He wouldn’t call himself an environmental activist, but his area is at risk of being affected by fracking, so he and his wife stay up-to-date on the issue. They went to all the town board meetings to establish a moratorium in his county, motivated, they say, by their love for the natural beauty of the region as well as their family.

“I have a family. I have young children. …We have a farm. We have horses and cows and chickens. And I’m thinking, my kids have to drink this water, my animals have to drink this water. So we’re looking at it like that.”

Higgins contacted NPR’s ombudsman and a number of shows about their plugs for ANGA, but got no response.

“It was pretty frustrating,” he said.

So Higgins decided he wasn’t going to donate to NPR this year, and that he was going to encourage others to pledge to do the same. He started two online petitions calling on NPR’s CEO Gary Knell to eliminate NPR’s ANGA plugs.

Higgins wrote in the description of one petition:

Certainly, NPR should not be promoting the gas industry's commitment to jobs and the environment. I wrote our local affiliate when I withheld my yearly contribution and got no response. I wrote NPR and got no response. I guess my contribution is not as important to them as ANGA's. Will you stand with me and withhold your contribution to NPR until they pull the ads touting ANGA's commitment to our environment? 

Currently, Higgins has more than 600 signatures on his main petition, which hosts a flurry of comments expressing similar frustrations with NPR’s plugs. Melanie Maroney of McDonough, NY wrote, “Hearing these ads on NPR sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard. My tax dollars support NPR, thus these promotions are out-of-line.”

Joanne Cipolla-Dennis of New York wrote:

Since NPR gets SO much $$ from ANGA I haven’t sent in any money. And I don’t plan to. I am VERY dismayed that NPR feels it necessary to allow and encourage the number-one industry creating the climate change destruction all over the planet to continue to spew its sinful spin. People who listen to NPR are educated people and when we hear those AGNA commercials we all quickly turn the volume down so we aren’t sickened by the crap, and frankly I got tired of hearing it and listen less and less to NPR — getting information in other places that don’t take such a welcoming stance on this industry.

But not everyone who tunes in to NPR will be educated on the harms of fracking, which is why Higgins and others are especially disappointed with the ANGA plugs. “You have their listeners listening to these plugs for natural gas and then maybe thinking ‘Oh, NPR’s supporting drilling,’” Higgins said.

Emma of Pennsylvania wrote on the petition:

Make no mistake: sponsorship acknowledgments are ads, but more insidious because the audience is more apt to trust them, all of which profiteering companies have long understood. NPR, protect your mission statement: inform and challenge us with a deeper understanding, and make sure everything you do is a public service.

In addition to possibly misinforming listeners, Higgins and other signers said NPR’s ANGA plugs may leave listeners questioning whether or not its fracking coverage is actually being compromised. For Higgins, NPR’s reporting is of the highest caliber.

“I regard NPR’s coverage as really the best there is. There is nothing better on,” he said. “That’s all we listen to.”

But when it comes to fracking coverage, Higgins said, “it’s hard to say.” He said he dislikes when NPR frames global warming and fracking as “controversial” issues. “It’s not … controversial. … They don’t think it’s really controversial from a scientific and medical point of view. Only the industry scientists question the dangers.”

Higgins added that some of NPR’s other stories are just not critical enough, pointing to NPR’s recent coverage of fracking in California as an example. He said that while someone from the Center for Biological Diversity issued a warning about the dangers of fracking, the interview was largely dominated by lighthearted talk of the process.

NPR declined an interview, but responded to the request stating:

Corporate sponsors have no input into news content, knowledge about it, or access to our newsgathering staff. … The underwriting credits you heard from ANGA provided general support to NPR, not to any particular program or area or coverage. … NPR News covers our sponsors as we do any other individual or organization: with independent, objective, fair reporting. NPR News has reported critically about a sponsor’s business activities in the past and would have no hesitation to do so again.

(You can read NPR's entire response at the end of the article.)

NPR has also addressed listeners’ concerns about sponsors and underwriters in the past. Former ombudsman Alicia Shepard estimated that 20 percent of these concerns were related to NPR’s funders. NPR continuously insists that it has a strict firewall between business and editorial content. It has also responded to concerns specifically regarding ANGA, and apologized for allowing an ANGA ad to run right next to fracking coverage on its website and promised to “work harder to protect its reputation by avoiding actions that could reinforce perceptions that access to its news gathering is for sale.”

But, it insisted:

NPR had every right to accept underwriting ads from the natural gas industry, as long as they met the criteria. It is a fact of life that underwriting is now an important source of income for NPR.

Regardless of whether ANGA’s sponsorship really is influencing NPR’s coverage, Higgins reiterated that by plugging ANGA, the perception might still be there — plus, it may confuse listeners.

But behind a critique of NPR’s plugging of ANGA lies a critique of funding public media in the United States. If NPR was sufficiently funded by the federal government, it wouldn’t need to take money from corporations or lobbying groups like ANGA. NPR’s member stations’ main source of revenue (39 percent in 2010) is from listener contributions, while its next largest source is from corporations (17 percent). Federal, state and local governments contributed less than 5 percent to NPR, though the federally supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting contributed about 11 percent.

The United States spends less than $1.50 per capita on funding public media, compared to, for instance, the $80 per capita the United Kingdom spends on funding the BBC and other public media.

“Worldwide the U.S. has one of the lowest-funded public media systems in terms of what we as a public contribute through our tax dollars,” said Josh Stearns, the journalism and public media campaign director for FreePress.

Stearns said that despite this, Congress continues to threaten funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and “because of that, public broadcasters feel like they need to prepare, feel like they need to look elsewhere and have really ramped up their efforts to expand other opportunities for funding.”

Stearns said he wishes the United States could have publicly funded, non-commercial media — free from political and commercial pressure — because even a strict firewall has its issues.

“It may not matter to the way that things are covered, but it matters in two other ways,” Stearns said. “One: it means that we have to have a system where NPR invests in people whose only job is to go out and to sell these sponsorships and underwritings. … And also it raises the kinds of concerns that this petition seems to address, which is whether the firewall is there or not, the listeners are concerned.”

Stearns added that he grew up in Central NY where fracking is a big concern. As someone who stays on top of fracking coverage, Stearns said he believes NPR is doing some of the best reporting out there on the issue. He believes that refusing to donate to NPR may not be the best answer, saying, “While it’s tempting to want to pull support, I think we need to work on fixing the system, the public broadcasting system, while we also continue to make sure they are able to do the good reporting that they are doing.”

Dennis Higgins said he understands the financial struggle NPR faces, and doesn’t mind it accepting money from the American Natural Gas Alliance. But the plugs, he said, are still out of line.

“I think they should take money wherever they need to. But I’ve been giving them money for many years and they’re not promoting my commitment to the environment,” Higgins said. “They’re allowing the donors to give them the text that they’re supposed to read. …If they want to take money, they should take money, but just don’t plug.”

Numerous signers of Higgins’ petition agreed, with some saying that NPR should completely do away with these sponsorship acknowledgments.

Kathryn Hanratty of Ohio wrote: “It is one thing to allow advertisements — quite another to provide a forum for lies.”

Others believe eliminating the plugs is not enough, and encouraged NPR to stop taking ANGA’s money.

Emma of Pennsylvania wrote: “I find it harder and harder to trust the reports I get when part of the financial backing comes from profit-driven companies that do not have the public good at heart.”

Higgins hopes to reach his goal of 1,000 signatures on his petition before sending it to NPR’s CEO. He said he knows his action seems tangential to the main anti-fracking struggle, but it’s still part of the whole resistance.

“I know it’s not the main thrust of the fight, but I think we've got to fight it anywhere and everywhere,” he said. “If the ANGA is going to put gas on NPR, then that’s one of the places we have to fight.”
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The following is NPR’s entire response to an interview request:

We maintain a very strict firewall between our sponsors and our journalism. Corporate sponsors have no input into news content, knowledge about it, or access to our newsgathering staff.
 
The business arrangements with NPR’s corporate sponsors are handled independently of NPR, through a subsidiary organization called National Public Media.
 
The underwriting credits you heard from ANGA provided general support to NPR, not to any particular program or area or coverage.
 
You can find more information about the firewall between our journalism and funders in our Ethics Handbook which is available on NPR.org here: http://ethics.npr.org/ or at this direct link: http://ethics.npr.org/category/e-independence/
 
NPR News covers our sponsors as we do any other individual or organization: with independent, objective, fair reporting. NPR News has reported critically about a sponsor’s business activities in the past and would have no hesitation to do so again.
 
Regarding NPR’s coverage of fracking, at last check there were over 156 stories on the subject that have aired on NPR or been posted on our website. You may already be aware of these other stories, but if not, they may add additional perspective to your views of how we cover the issue.
 
Additionally, we’ve recently started a journalistic collaboration with NPR Member Stations in several states that is called StateImpact. This project examines public policy issues in-depth. Our work with StateImpact Pennsylvania encompasses the energy beat, and fracking has been a big focus of that work. You can see more of that coverage and add your comments to it, here: http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/tag/fracking/

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.