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Why I'm Still Pushing NPR to Stop Promoting Fracking

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How bizarre is it to be listening to Mozart, or All Things Considered, on National Public Radio and to hear an advertisement for natural gas?  I heard one just the other day.  You might hear that American Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) is providing good jobs and protecting the environment or that natural gas is enabling whole cities to cut their carbon footprint.  Beyond the fact that these ads represent false advertising on steroids, isn’t there something insidious about a label – NPR – that you’ve come to rely on, and trust, suddenly promoting an industry blithely unfettered by clean air or clean water regulations? Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” If he were contemplating the situation today, I think he’d say, “The money in the medium is the message.” 

My wife and I have been strong supporters of NPR through our local affiliate, WSKG, through 2011 in which year we donated nearly $500.  We were startled and affronted by NPR’s ads for ANGA when we first heard them in 2012. I wrote our local affiliate and the NPR ombudsman. I also emailed a number of really great programs about this “shilling for gas” issue:  All Things ConsideredLiving on EarthOn the Media (now, why isn’t On the Mediacovering this?) I suggested to them that maybe in their blurbs they shouldn’t recite the corporate sponsor’s outright lies.  Doing so just seems wrong to me.  I am old fashioned, I guess, and thought they should hold to a higher standard than commercial television.  It seems to me they should be looking out for the public’s interest, which would include the public’s prospects of a clean sustainable environment and individual good health.  

Alternatively, they might provide a caveat after airing a blurb, stating that they do not vouch for its veracity or endorse the corporation which paid for it.  NPR’s messages remind me of Orwell’s 1984: Industry is telling us that what they want is really good for us, and NPR is willing to be their mouthpiece.  

When at last NPR deemed my communications important enough to respond to, (among other things, I asked them if the P in NPR stood for petrochemicals), a VP from Marketing, Ms. Rehm, informed me:  

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. … 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.

In the May, 2013 New Yorker Jane Mayer had an article that suggested the NPR “firewall” was perhaps not really fireproof, and that if, say, a Koch brother was on the board, then maybe independent reporting for an NPR affiliate wasn’t really that important after all.   You’re starting to get it:  The money in the medium is the message. 

I am still pushing NPR to do the right thing here. When our local affiliate WSKG, which broadcasts in New York and Pennsylvania, failed to meet its fund drive objective in April 2013 I sent them the following message:

I am sorry you did not make your recent pledge drive goal.  But, as I've indicated in several unacknowledged communications lately, there is no point in asking me to ante up.  WSKG has failed to be a good citizen.  WSKG has failed to advocate for the environment and the public on one of the biggest issues facing the planet and our locale today - global warming and HVHF.  You claim to be a public, community-minded participant but, in fact, until recently, you were advertising for ANGA.  You are still taking their money.  In trying to have it both ways you continue your faux reporting on HVHF issues.  Go down to Dimock and count water buffaloes in front yards.  Report on contractor liens and damage to the environment. Report on where doctors stand on this issue.  Report on truckers dumping toxic waste on the roads and field of PA and in NY landfills.  Report on silica dust. Report on radon. Report on home insurance and mortgage cancellation. Stop reporting on the false promise of industry jobs and cheap energy.  These have not materialized in PA and won't occur here, either.  I will rejoin the WSKG community when you manage to figure out on which side of this issue the public interest lies.

Many of my friends sent the same message. We received a polite, if exasperated, email from the manager, Ken Campbell.  He noted: 

ANGA has been an underwriter of NPR off and on over the last several years. WSKG is not National Public Radio. WSKG is an NPR affiliate, but we have absolutely no control over who supports NPR, other than what we pay them in programming dues and fees. NPR's fundraising decisions are their own and they have a strong firewall between their development department and their news department. WSKG sees absolutely no benefit from these credits.

He also mentioned, “the FCC frowns on stations airing funding messages that advocate on controversial local issues.” It certainly seems that NPR has decided to ignore this point.  Mr. Campbell stated that “objective journalism is indeed what we aim to produce on the local level, not advocacy.” And that “WSKG acts, first and foremost, in the public interest because that is who funds us and that is whom we are charged with serving.”  I responded yet again in May and pointed out that their listening area and the New York Marcellus shale sweet spot were very nearly identical:  Shouldn’t this be an opportunity for a public station to speak out in the public interest?  

I don’t have an answer.  NPR and its affiliates have failed, as has most American media, to act in the best interests of the public, to check the facts they are being fed by politicians and corporate representatives, to realize there is no controversy here, even though they keep reporting that there is.  NPR hasn’t noticed – or chooses not to mention – that corporate America, and politicians, keep shifting the center of the playing field.  When the science is on one side, and the corporate dollars are on the other, and the media is talking about finding middle ground, you realize that money trumps what would otherwise be fodder for investigative reporting.   Would putting a Koch brother on the board of trustees put the goal post back where it belongs?  Some NPR affiliates think so.  Maybe National Public Radio is at a crossroads.  Clearly, their model doesn’t quite work.  Maybe NPR will realize this and make the necessary changes to their commercial and investigative guidelines.  Will NPR morph into something more like NBC or even Fox?  Maybe it already has.  Or perhaps NPR needs to be dismantled and we need to reinvent media for and by the public.

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