I have had a 50-year love affair with public radio. My start with NPR coincided with the network’s s birth in 1971. I was one of NPR’s first three reporters, one of its first All Things Considered hosts, an award-winning NPR documentary producer and ultimately EP of ATC. Even after I left for public television and subsequently returned to radio to invent Marketplace, I have repeatedly shown my respect and love for NPR and my dedication to public radio in general. Now, I am a consumer and enjoy NPR much of every day — which is why my recent discovery troubled me enough to write this commentary.
I heard an NPR newscast Oct. 26 that included an item about the Senate committee investigating Facebook’s strategy of using its viewing algorithm to keep its audience clicking and consuming its product — despite possible harm to young users. The newscast ended with an acknowledgement that Facebook is “among NPR’s recent financial supporters.”
This caveat gave me an odd feeling, even a chill. On one hand, because NPR was covering a story about Facebook, it felt journalistically obligated to acknowledge that Facebook was a former sponsor. Indeed, five years ago, NPR Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott told reporters to “err on the side of disclosure” when reporting on stories involving Facebook. And there seems no question that NPR News took him seriously, as it has frequently disclosed Facebook’s sponsorship when news stories mentioning the company air.
There’s been plenty of cause lately for such coverage. In an October interview with Facebook’s VP of content policy, NPR’s Steve Inskeep referred to an internal Facebook memo that said “misinformation, toxicity and violent content are inordinately prevalent among reshares.” Also last month, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, the serial leaker of thousands of internal documents, told Ari Shapiro that “Facebook’s own research says it is not just that [Facebook-owned] Instagram is dangerous for teenagers, that it harms teenagers. It’s that it is distinctly worse than other forms of social media.” Shapiro added that Facebook’s own research “found 13.5% of teen girls said Instagram … makes thoughts of suicide worse. Seventeen percent said it worsened eating disorders.”
Facebook’s transgressions are not new. Nobody’s realization that Facebook is out of control came just this year. In 2008, only four years after Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook, it faced a class-action suit for revealing private information about its users. By 2018, the infamous Cambridge Analytica case in Britain revealed Facebook’s illegal “data harvesting,” accessing and selling data of some 50 million users.
Why did NPR say the sponsorship was “recent”? I learned from an NPR spokesperson that Facebook’s last sponsorship campaign with the network ended late last year — though NPR and Facebook’s newly named parent company, Meta, continue to have a financial relationship. I’ll discuss that later.
Facebook’s serious problems with compromising user data began to be unearthed in 2008, and criticism of the company has only mounted since then. So why did NPR even find Facebook to be an acceptable sponsor as late as 2020?
Disclosing funding arrangements is good journalism, as it anticipates criticism of undisclosed conflicts of interest. But disclosures don’t let journalists off the hook for taking money from bad actors. Legitimate news organizations need to take a stand that goes beyond disclosure. Don’t just tell me that unethical companies are or were sponsors adjacent to news stories about them. Don’t take the tainted money in the first place. It’s wrong, and you get some of the bad vibes on you, too.
Media, especially public media, need to decline funding from any and all entities that are demonstrably shown to have behaved in immoral, anti-societal, anti-human ways. In Facebook’s case, millions of leaked in-house memoranda have proven that. Of course, Facebook disagrees. In a statement last month, Facebook said that at the center of reporting on its leaked internal documents “is a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our commercial interests lie. The truth is we’ve invested $13 billion and have over 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on Facebook.”
According to NPR, more than a third of its nearly $275 million in revenue in fiscal year 2020 came from over 500 corporate sponsors. On the subject of who is an acceptable underwriter, NPR’s website says that “all NPR funding sources, including corporate sponsors, are considered under the ‘access’ principle, which means that NPR has no list of sources from which funding will not be accepted. However, potential conflict of interest and problems of listener misperception, confusion, or similar reason regarding the funder’s role and/or influence on programming will be considered in accepting or rejecting underwriting.” NPR says it makes decisions about national corporate sponsors based on principles established by its board of directors.
So in reality, how should “bad actors” get screened out and rejected? Some journalists and their company sales representatives will respond by saying, “We are not the policeman, judge or jury — who are we to pass judgment on others?” But that argument falls on deaf ears when the media play that role every day. The media routinely praise good actors, like the Bombas shoe and clothing company, which gives socks to homeless people.
The First Amendment gives Americans the right to associate with each other; implicit in that right, however, is the right to choose not to associate. Court decisions have upheld the right of public broadcasters to decline underwriting. In 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis confirmed public radio station KWMU’s right to reject proposed underwriting by the Missouri Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s proposed sponsorship language included “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a white Christian organization, standing up for the rights and values of white Christian America since 1865.”
How should NPR and other public media organizations determine which sponsors to reject? If NPR doesn’t feel that it can make such judgments on its own or at least raise the question for public consideration, perhaps it ought to create a distinguished panel of ethicists and others to make recommendations and advise the network about possible “optics problems” that might taint its image and credibility.
In an Oct. 21 column, NPR Public Editor Kelly McBride made another sound suggestion. “It may not be enough to maintain high standards,” McBride wrote. “In order to keep a position of trust, NPR may have to create new ways to let the audience in on those standards.”
She added: “Perhaps an archive of sponsor messages and the dates they ran would be helpful. In addition to publishing a static list of sponsors in the annual report, maybe a public database of sponsors would generate more transparency. If news consumers could sort through every sponsor message, they would gain a more accurate picture of the many companies seeking to reach NPR’s audience.”
Rejecting sponsorship is tough, but strong and independent media organizations need to be willing to make this decision. You can review all of NPR’s sponsors in its annual report and consider whether other underwriters should be rejected. But for true transparency, you’d also want to see the sponsors NPR has turned down as well. Isabel Lara, NPR’s Chief Communications Officer, confirmed that NPR has turned down sponsors but declined to disclose who they were.
According to Lara, Facebook’s most recent sponsorship for NPR was to promote one of its own podcasts, My Business with David Fischer. The sponsor credits appeared within NPR podcasts. “Facebook’s sponsorship campaign ended as planned; most of our sponsors are only running for a month to a few months at a time,” Lara said.
After the promotion ended in November, Lara said Facebook did propose another sponsorship campaign that didn’t adhere to NPR’s guidelines. NPR rejected it for reasons Lara would not disclose. But in her recent column, McBride noted that NPR rejected a Facebook sponsorship message “in which the company announces that it is in favor of reforming the laws that govern the internet, even section 230.”
NPR may decline promotional messages “if accepting the support may call NPR’s independence and objectivity into question” or “if the sponsor is weighing in on a news story we’re covering, political advocacy, prescription drugs” and other issues, according to Lara.
“There’s a firewall: journalists have no role in selecting sponsors and sponsors have no access to our editorial staff,” she added.
NPR is still taking money from Facebook. As Lara told me Oct. 29, NPR is now disclosing that “Facebook’s parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content.” The language was adopted “to most accurately convey the current business relationship NPR has with Facebook and to reflect the company’s name change to Meta,” Lara said.
Since 2020, NPR has been among the publishers licensing content to Facebook to have stories appear in the News Tab on its platform. Lara would not disclose how much Facebook pays NPR for the content. But the network should reveal the amount and let the audience decide whether possible harm to NPR’s credibility is worth it.
I also looked into whether other public media organizations have accepted underwriting from Facebook. Representatives of PRX and American Public Media spokesperson told me that their companies have not. A PBS spokesperson declined to comment. I’ve collected more information about these organizations’ sponsorship practices here.
Granted that the editorial “firewall” is real and does work to keep NPR News ethically sound, one can still not ignore the fact that Facebook exerts a bigger-than-life influence, a sort of “guilt by association” on all those media entities it favors or wishes to influence. As Washington Monthly’s Dan Froomkin wrote this summer, Facebook has created “a secretive, multimillion-dollar-a-year payout scheme aimed at the most influential news outlets in America. Under the cover of launching a feature called Facebook News, Facebook has been funneling money to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Bloomberg, and other select paid partners since late 2019.” Froomkin called these journalistic collaborations “a serious breach of traditional ethics” by the media companies that accepted the money.
“These deals help Facebook maintain the public appearance of legitimacy,” Froomkin added. “Journalists, critics, and congressional investigators have amply documented how Facebook has become a vector of disinformation and hate speech that routinely invades our privacy and undermines our democracy. For The New York Times and other pillars of American journalism to effectively partner with Facebook creates the impression that Facebook is a normal, legitimate business rather than a monopolistic rogue corporation.”
I am no saint either. When I was running Marketplace, we accepted major underwriting from General Electric, whom we knew to be both a nuclear provider and an environmental polluter. GE made no bones about the fact that it was using its sponsorship of public broadcasting to “launder its image” (my characterization). When GE was in one of our news stories, we used the same kind of disclosure announcement that NPR does. But that was 20-plus years ago. Times and public attitudes change, and so does our understanding of ethics and proper corporate and media behavior. I wonder whether Marketplace would accept GE’s sponsorship today.
Even the commercial networks have learned some of these lessons sooner than NPR, forced by public opinion, adverse court cases and eventually legislation into dropping tobacco advertising and many other products shown to be unsafe. They did so for commercial and legal reasons, not conscience — so our motives differ, but the results turn out the same.
Former NPR News VP Jeffrey Dvorkin, also the network’s first ombudsman, told me that NPR has always faced a “corporate tension” between sponsorship income and its support from stations. Meanwhile, the “power and reach of social media,” Dvorkin said, have been “an irresistible attraction to traditional media.”
“… All news organizations, print and broadcast, have joined in the feasting,” he said. “Now that we know the downside of social media, public broadcasting, indeed all media with a service mission to inform, need to change the nature of the financial arrangements in order to be more transparent and accountable.”
Not everyone will agree with the kind of standards I am suggesting. Phil Shuman is a fundraising consultant who has raised more than $100 million in corporate underwriting and related promotion for public radio and television programming over more than 50 years, for programs ranging from This Old House to PBS NewsHour and many others — including a show I know something about, Marketplace.
“I sincerely believe that you raise a thought-provoking, important and challenging issue, Shuman told me. “However, I feel that you are proposing the establishment of an impossibly high bar. Under your standard of ‘purity’ there are no individuals — much less corporations — who would qualify as ‘perfect beyond reproach’ funders for public broadcasting. This would result in zero dollars raised, thus threatening the very existence of an institution so vital to our nation’s future.” He described the approach I am proposing as starting down “a very slippery slope.” Maybe so, but I’ve found that you often have to take real risk to protect the ideals you stand for.
NPR is pragmatic about its sponsorship income, which amounted to nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 — 34% of its revenue. Even in digital sponsorship, where language is allowed more leeway than on noncommercial broadcast radio, NPR says that truth and accuracy are important and insists on language that “is not likely to undermine NPR’s credibility as a news organization.” What troubles me is that NPR is so focused on protecting its good name and reputation that it misses the point. While NPR is so keyed in on protecting itself, who protects the public from a demonstrably nefarious company? Who performs the “in loco parentis” role for … the public Shouldn’t that also be part of NPR’s role? How can they guard against bad optics if they associate with bad actors?
What is at stake here is the overall credibility of NPR and public radio stations all over America that are affected by its associations. An October E-Poll Research study cited by NPR found the network to be the most “trustworthy” news brand among respondents. But a different study by Morning Consult and The Hollywood Reporter shows NPR and a number of other news sources losing credibility among respondents since 2019. That may have more to do with the current politically charged environment than anything they’re doing. But the bottom line is that public perception of credibility, no matter how politically motivated, is important.
As Mark Zuckerberg has shown, there is no safe, ethical, neutral position to take with regard to companies that routinely do demonstrable harm to the public. As journalists, we cannot hide in seemingly neutral “safe places” when people do bad or unethical things. Our job is to call them out and to never presume that disclosing a conflict of interest by itself absolves the “conflictor” or ourselves — the media, and particularly public media — from accepting tainted funding. Time to bite the bullet, NPR and the rest of public media, and simply stop accepting dirty money.
Jim Russell is a multi–award-winning journalist and inventive producer who has created successful national programs for all three public radio networks, participating in the creation of All Things Considered, Morning Edition and The World and creating the unique concept for Marketplace. He is now a mostly retired consultant, “The Program Doctor.”