NPR pushes back against allegation it was influenced in Iran treaty coverage

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, left, and NPR  NPR senior vice president of news Michael Oreskes, right.NPR again pushed back today against an Associated Press story last week that strongly suggested a pro-peace, anti-nuke group in favor of the Iran nuclear treaty gained influence in NPR reporting through a grant to the news organization.

The Ploughshares Fund gave NPR $100,000 last year to fund its coverage of the treaty negotiations and subsequent deal.

“We created an echo chamber,” said Ben Rhodes, an Obama foreign policy aide, saying that “outside groups like Ploughshares” helped carry out the administration’s message effectively, the AP reported, citing a New York Times Magazine report.

“Our goal is not to make money,” NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes told NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik during a Facebook live broadcast this afternoon. “It is to raise enough money to pay the bills. What was constructed at NPR is a very, very thick firewall. The only people at NPR who decide what we cover are the journalists. It’s absolutely rigid; we don’t allow anyone else to dictate what we cover or how we cover.”

But that isn’t exactly the way Ploughshares viewed things, the Associated Press story suggested.

Ploughshares boasts of helping to secure the deal. While success was “driven by the fearless leadership of the Obama administration and supporters in Congress,” board chairwoman Mary Lloyd Estrin wrote in the annual report, “less known is the absolutely critical role that civil society played in tipping the scales towards this extraordinary policy victory.”

“I can’t control what they put in their foundation report,” Oreskes said today. “Their points of view have nothing to do with our coverage and they’re entitled to free speech.”

Folkenflik compared the dust-up to a controversy several years ago when NPR underwriting included messages from Walmart at a time when the company’s business practices were often in the news.

“Would we accept money from a Walmart foundation to underwrite coverage of the workplace if they promise not to interfere in coverage? Would we accept money from Boeing to cover national security and weaponry if they promised not to interfere in coverage?” Folkenflik asked Oreskes.

“I don’t know,” Oreskes responded. “We’d certainly want to discuss it.”

Folkenflik countered the complaint of U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a critic of the treaty, who told the Associated Press that NPR wouldn’t put him on the air.

Folkenflik says he reviewed the coverage and noted that Sen. Chuck Schumer was interviewed in the same week. Schumer, a New York Democrat, opposed the deal, “an interview that showed some of the opposition was bipartisan,” Folkenflik said.

But neither Folkenflik nor Oreskes addressed the underpinning of ethics policies in many of the nation’s newsrooms: perception of a conflict of interest, particularly when the president of Ploughshares was put on the air — twice — to speak about the negotiations, AP said.

Oreskes appeared to contradict himself a bit when he responded to Folkenflik’s question about hypothetical funders of NPR News.

“We really do try to be open to as broad and diverse a group of funders and underwriters as possible,” he said, “both because the broader the group, the less anyone’s influence is, and also because there is a bit of a First Amendment idea, which is that controversial ideas or the purveyors of controversial ideas shouldn’t be shut out simply because their ideas are controversial, even from our airwaves.”

How can there be a lessening of influence based on diversity of funding sources in a system in which, by design, there is no influence?

Folkenflik didn’t pick up on the word in Oreskes’ answer, and the format of the Facebook Live chat — for which NPR makes money, by the way — is problematic for taking questions from the audience despite Folkenflik’s multiple requests for the audience to participate. I’ve sent an email seeking clarification. [Update: “Yes, to be clear, the firewall is absolute,” Oreskes said.]

Oreskes said the public radio model is still better than commercial broadcasters who are, he suggested, influenced by advertisers.

“At least when we give you the journalism,” he said, “it’s our journalism.”

NPR ombudsman: Did Ploughshares Grant Skew NPR’s Iran Deal Coverage? (NPR)