Better Angels

"...all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." ---Abraham Lincoln, First Innaugural Address

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Something Rotten in the State of NPR

After analyzing Barbara Bradley Hagerty's hopelessly biased reporting (reported in yesterday's post), I started to wonder why NPR would continiue to support her. I figured the answer had to be related to money, so I started looking at NPR's underwriters.

Because NPR gets limited funding from Congress, it relies heavily on its corporate and chritable sources to pick up the tab. According to the 2002 annual report, NPR receives over 50 million dollars from grants and contributions each year. Over the years, these sponsors have become more and more intrusive, so that every half hour you get treated to a series of little commercials.

One of NPRs most steadfast supporters is the Pew Charitable Trusts. It's nearly impossible to come up with accurate totals of Pew's overall donations to NPR, as the annual report places them in the range between $500,000.00 and $999,999.00 but I did find this. In 2002, Pew gave NPR $500,000.00 for coverage of Religion and Public Life.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which handles Pew's spiritual side, also refers to this sponsorship of NPR, but with a twist. Under the heading "Pew Religion and Media Projects" is a blub about -
NPR's Religion Unit
Investigates the deeply held values and beliefs that provide the underpinnings of many policy debates and breaking news events.

Relgion Unit? The only other place in all the web where this term occurs in the files of the mysterious Greenville Foundation which appears to have given NPR $36,400.00 over the course of 4 years for:
"Support of NPR's Religion Unit to enable expanded coverage of religion and a systematic change in the way the media cover religion and faith, and to raise awareness of the importance of religion in American life."

Who runs this foundation? Damned if I know. They've closed up shop and disappeared.

But back to the folks at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Forum is directed by Luis E. Lugo, formerly of Calvin College, a Christian college, author of this book, published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and co-authored by many of our favorite EPPC luminaries and speaker at the upcoming "Evangelicals and American Foreign Policy" meeting at the Council on Foreign relations.

Speaking of the EPPC...haven't we met Pew Forum co-chair E.J. Dionne there? Why yes, we have. (note the participant list!) And in a stunning display of synergy, we see that Pew gave over a million dollars to the EPPC to "examine the role of Evangelicals in American Public Life." (and to think I'm doing the same thing for free.)

Mr. Dionne gets around. In addition to his PFRPL duties, he's a Senior Fellow at the Pew-funded Brookings Institute. He's also a frequent guest on All Things Considered, where he is paired with David Brooks. One is supossed to be liberal, the other, conservative, but I often can't tell the difference between them.

Making Mr. Dionne look like Dennis Kucinich is his co-chair, Jean Bethke Elshtain. She's the chair of the board of the Bradley, Olin and Scaife-funded Institure for American Values, a senior fellow at the Olin-funded John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, an EPPC conference participant, a member of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion's editorial board, a one-time member of the National Advisory Council of the Henry Institute of Christianity and Politics at Lugo's former employer, Calvin College, co-director of the American Assembly's program "Religionin American Public Life". Did I mention that she was involved in the Lilly Seminar on Religion and Higher Education? How about administering the Bradley Foundation's Graduate and Post-Graduate Fellowship at the University of Chicago? When does she have time to be on the advisory panel of Civitas, or participate in EPPC programs? How on Earth does she manage to be on the editorial advisory board of Richard John Neuhaus' First Things magazine?

As I researched this report, I came across name after name from BBH's oeuvre. If you scratch the surface of her stories, you run into the same people, the same institutions, the same foundations and the same couple of million dollars, which seems to get passed around from group to group. It is such a mind-bogglingly complex undertaking that I finally just had to stop myself.

The main issue here, as I see it, is that BBH's religion beat is funded by the Pew Forum, which is only a heartbeat away from the very orgainzations and institutions that she goes to for commentary. Even our omsbuddy Jeffery Dvorkin has a problem with this cozy relationship between funders and the news they fund. After Kuwait became an NPR underwriter in the 90's, he wrote:
"Journalists at NPR -- unlike managers -- are never in contact with corporate or foundation sponsors. But just as important as the reality of influence is the appearance of influence. Kuwait remains in the news. NPR reports from time to time from Iraq. Because of the public trust that exists between NPR and its listeners, every effort should be made to ensure that trust is never doubted. NPR in my opinion made an error in judgment, in this case by accepting underwriting from Kuwait."

Note that first sentence. Journalists are NEVER in contact with sponsors? What if they travel in the same circles, have friends in common or participate in some of the same events? What about the fact that BBH regularly goes to David Anderson of the American Anglican Council for commentary on the Episcopal church? The AAC, after all, is funded by Howard Ahmanson, also a major NPR contributor and Anderson is Ahmanson's pastor. Where is the "firewall?"

If this didn't give you enough to ponder, add to it the fact that the Pew Trusts have recently reorganized themselves from a private foundation into a public trust. This change means that the new "Pew Center" can raise funds and lobby politically. It's a subtle change, but one that does not bode well for NPR's independence and impartiality.

I know that I'll never be able to listen to NPR again without wondering "Why are they telling me this? What reaction do they want me to have? Who is paying them to make me have it?"