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NPR Watch

Why NPR Refuses to Report on the Single Payer Movement … And What Should be Done About It

by FELICE PACE

On June 10th the House of Representatives held the first congressional hearing on proposals for Single Payer Health Insurance. Amy Goodman highlighted the hearing on Democracy Now. But neither National Public Radio’s flagship news program (All Things Considered) nor its morning news program (Morning Edition) reported on the hearing. Instead, on June 11th, Morning Edition reported that President Obama is planning to conduct a town hall meeting on health care. With respect to the health insurance debate, what the President is planning to do (news via press release!) is apparently more news worthy than what the House of Representative had already done the day before.

I did a search on NPR’s web site. Results were slightly different for single payer and “single payer”. Here are the results:

"Single payer" search of all programs all time periods available:

157 hits

21 hits on single payer in 2009.

2009 hits: 1 hit on Talk of the Nation;  5 hits on Morning Edition ; 3 hits on NPR’s Health Blog; 3 hits on All Things Considered; 5 hits on Tell Me More; 1 hit on Fresh Air; 3 hits on News and Notes.

“Single payer” search of all programs all time periods available:

38 hits;

11 hits in 2009

2009 hits: 3 hits on All Things Considered; 3 hits on Morning Edition; 1 hit on NPR’s Health Blog; 1 hit on Talk of the Nation; 3 hits on Tell me More;

These stories mention single payer. I can find no NPR news reports or other shows which actually focused on single payer or on the movement to achieve it.

Why is NPR refusing to report on what 60% of US citizens and the majority of health professionals want?

NPR’s web site provides lists of foundation and individual major donors but not of corporate sponsors. For that list you need to go to their annual reports. The latest report available on line is for 2005. Health and Long-term Care corporate sponsors in 2005 were:

$1 million+:  Farmers Insurance Group of Companies,  Prudential Financial

$500,000 – $999,999:  Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America,  Allstate Insurance Company, Northwestern Mutual Foundation,

$250,000 – $499,999:  AARP, The Hartford Financial Services Group, UnumProvident

$100,000 – $249,999:  Liberty Mutual Insurance Company

I’d like to know how much money insurance companies which sell health insurance contributed to NPR in 2009 (so far) and in 2008. I’ve requested the information from NPR management.

NPR’s Ombudsman, Alicia B, Shepard, insists that “A firewall really does exist between the editorial and marketing sides of NPR to prevent NPR sponsors from influencing programming.”

In a May column Ms. Shepard described the process NPR uses to “prevent……sponsors from influencing programming”:                                    

“About one week in advance, NPR’s corporate sponsorship division sends a schedule of funding credits to all NPR shows so they have an opportunity to identify conflicts before they air, said John King, operations manager. He says the schedules are emailed and hand-delivered to Morning Edition and All Things Considered.”

The influence of corporate sponsors is no less effective because it is not direct. As one listener John Smith, commented about the Ombudsman’s May 2009 column cited above:  “No, NPR isn’t selling out, because there’s nothing left to sell. Corporate funding removed its teeth long ago. Remember ADM, lysine price fixing and NPR?”

I have been listening to NPR news programs for a bout 40 years. When I began listening NPR it was obvious that reporters and editors saw themselves as providing a PUBLIC alternative to mainstream (network) news. Now these folks see themselves as part of the mainstream…..They act accordingly. This sort of influence – which results from unconscious identification rather than conscious choice – is both more insidious and more dangerous than conscious and direct pay-for-play corruption.

Media watcher journalists have reported on corporate influence at NPR. Noting that several sponsors had pulled funding from NPR and Boston Area station WBUR over what the sponsors said was "a profoundly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias," Dan Kennedy reported on The Boston Phoenix web site in 2001 that “so-called public radio today is, in many respects, public in name only.” Kennedy concluded that “The ultimate accountability should be with the listeners, who can choose to listen or not, and to give or not. Yet as public radio is now constituted, corporate money is absolutely essential. It’s a dilemma, and not one amenable to easy answers.”

Should we (i.e. the PUBLIC) simply give up on NPR, rename it National Corporate Radio and tune our radios to Alternative stations and networks?

That course is certainly tempting. By all means tune in, stream, download and support KPFA, Democracy Now, Free Speech Radio News and other alternative radio news shows originating in your communities. But we should not abdicate our right to public radio that actually serves the public. Lots of taxpayer money still goes to NPR and the public radio system. Ironically, as a result of the recession NPR may be more dependent on those funds now than they have been for many years. Furthermore, NPR remains very dependent on contributions from individual listeners. Here’s now NPR’s web site reports sources of funding:

31% from listeners in the form of pledges, memberships, and other donations

20% from businesses via corporate underwriting

11% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded

10% from licensee support

9% from foundations and major gifts

5% from local and state governments, and

14% from all other sources.

Clearly, NPR still values and covets its Public status – as well as the funding it receives from individual donors and from taxpayers via the federal government. This provides We the People with potential power to promote change at the network.

But how can we leverage that potential influence into positive change? I suggest we deluge NPR with comments about their failure to report on single payer and the other movements, events and initiatives which America’s corporate rulers and their shills don’t want reported! That is what I did this morning when I sent the management, news shows and Ombudsman the data on “single payer” coverage presented above.   

We the People may or may not be able to trigger positive change at NPR; but we will never know unless we try. Keep building, promoting and listening to Alternative Radio; but put the pressure on NPR as well. Click here to provide feedback via NPR’s web form. Do it now!

FELICE PACE has been a grassroots environmental, peace and justice activist since 1967. He lives and writes near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northwest California.