Public radio is once again struggling to define the line between on-air talent who report as ethically bound journalists and those personalities who are permitted to express opinions. Freelance radio broadcaster Lisa Simeone, a veteran host of public radio documentary and music programs, was fired late Oct. 19 from Soundprint, the independently produced long-form doc series, for violating NPR’s ethics code. Her role as spokesperson for “October 2011,” an anti-war group aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has staged protests in Washington, D.C., put her longtime affiliation with public radio in jeopardy. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call first questioned whether Simeone’s activism violated journalistic ethics in an Oct.
Having witnessed the damaging one-round knockout of NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller in March, public radio’s development pros are working to adapt the lessons they’ve learned about ethics and prudence into a set of best-practices guidelines for use throughout the field. But they’re already tiptoeing around a clear discrepancy between the major ethical code of professional fundraisers and a common practice in public broadcasting — paid commissions on underwriting sales. DEI, the national agency for pubradio fundraising that convenes its annual Public Media Development and Marketing Conference in Pittsburgh later this week, has assembled a group to draft ethical standards for fundraising in nonprofit public media. DEI is leading the re-evaluation as part of its CPB-backed Leadership for Philanthropy project, which aims to help stations improve their major-gift fundraising. The main starting point for DEI’s advisory council is the Code of Ethical Principles and Standards of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, which prohibits commission-based compensation for nonprofit fundraisers.
Now might not seem like the best time for the public broadcasting system to be pondering philosophical questions of identity and purpose, since its unwanted promotion to high-profile partisan punching bag in Congress. The official ponderers of the system’s Editorial Integrity for Public Media initiative beg to disagree. Now more than ever, they say, public broadcasting must make its case by defining its purpose and identity to the larger world — because if it doesn’t, its critics will. “In this political environment there’s a lot being thrown around about integrity, bias, and ‘just who are these public broadcasting guys, anyway?’” said Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, co-director of the editorial initiative. “We should be able to say, here’s how we do our work, here’s the way in which we make decisions, here’s what money we take or not, here’s how we balance funding and content.”
“In the work I’ve done, facilitating Dynamic Inquiries and Round Robins, one of the key things that comes up is, we don’t have an articulated vision for public broadcasting — and, frankly, that has gotten louder,” said Ted Krichels, director of Penn State Public Broadcasting and chair of the Editorial Integrity project’s 20-member steering committee.
NPR should have its journalists phase out any long-term contracts for appearances on other media outlets, monitor those appearances more carefully and make clearer distinctions between reporting, analysis and commentary in its programming, the network’s ethics-policy task force advised Feb. 25 . Bob Steele, head of the task force, presented recommendations for revising the ethics code to the NPR Board last month. Steele, director of the Prindle Institute for Ethics and distinguished professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University and a journalism values scholar with the Poynter Institute, was retained by NPR President Vivian Schiller to head the task force. The 13-member task force included NPR employees, outside journalists and citizens at large.
The leadership of WNET said a federal investigation into the station’s use of federal grants totaling almost $13 million is wrapping up, and the organization is financially sound. “There was sloppiness as opposed to real wrongdoing in terms of our accounting systems, which has been addressed,” said James Tisch, chairman of the WNET Board, in an interview.
Bill Lichtenstein, executive producer of pubradio’s The Infinite Mind, got a phone call Nov. 20 from a New York Times reporter with troubling information: the program’s host, psychiatrist Fred Goodwin, had been paid more than $1 million by drug giant GlaxoSmithKline since 2000. “My first question was, where did you get that information?’’ Lichtenstein said in an interview with Current. When the reporter said that Goodwin had told him, Lichtenstein was stunned. “When he began to read me the dollar amounts of fees, year by year, I went from stunned to shocked.”
The $1 million-plus figure had been uncovered by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking Republican in the Senate Finance Committee, which has been investigating the lack of financial transparency in medicine.
Before Nancy Kruse’s fundraising company closed, leaving more than $400,000 in expected public radio proceeds unaccounted for, Kruse’s company bio described her as, among other things, “director of The Writing Center in San Diego” who “has a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University and, in 1997, was awarded a Eureka Fellowship for her leadership in nonprofit management.”However, Georgetown University has no record of her graduation and Eureka Communities does not list her as a past fellow. She did indeed run the Writing Center, once a nonprofit fixture of San Diego’s literary scene, but Kruse’s former co-workers, who knew her under the name Delaney Anderson, say she presided over the center’s collapse. The center’s last days in 1998 were marked by double-talk and creative accounting, they say, which also characterized the rapid decline and closing of Washington-based Nancy Kruse + Partners this year, according to many of that firm’s employees. The Writing Center’s leaders say Anderson/Kruse suddenly resigned weeks before the center’s demise amid eviction notices and bad debts. Kruse, who ran online fundraising auctions for more than 40 pubradio stations in her company’s 16-month existence, has not explained to stations what happened to more than $400,000 in earnings she had reported from September’s multistation auction.
A revised ethics guide for public radio asks journalists to “remain reportorial” instead of spouting opinions when they’re off the air, and it urges that they apply the same standards to call-in shows and websites as they do to newscasts.
The bad news: Public radio is a small part of a rapidly expanding nonprofit sector. Competition with other nonprofits for mind-share and donor support will intensify. Moreover, public radio lacks the financial transparency that donors increasingly expect.