NPR at 50 – Straying from Its Civic Mission?
By Ralph Nader
May 14, 2021
This month is the 50th anniversary of National Public Radio (NPR). Knowing about my work back then with other advocates, to persuade Congress to pass legislation creating NPR and PBS, (which was opposed by most of the commercial radio/TV industry), a friend asked what I think of NPR now.
A few observations, drawn from listening to NPR largely over the WAMC station in Albany, New York during a Covid-19 year, are in order.
1. I find the features and the collaboration with other investigative groups, such as Pro Publica, very enlightening. One piece about Amazon’s warehouses was especially memorable. Moreover, Scott Simon and David Brancaccio are so capable as to be considered under-challenged.
2. NPR’s top-of-the-hour news amounts to little more than three minutes. It is repetitious and basically a minor headline service. This mimicking of commercial network radio news is not what we envisioned 50 years ago. The prolonged 6:15 pm evening weather forecasts on WAMC are often longer than the evening news briefs at 6:00 pm.
3. There is just too much weather forecasting throughout the day. On WAMC, around mid-day, they’ll tell you about the weather in California and the mountain states before you hear the forecast for the local listening region. They even promote the weather forecasts. So obsessed are they that they repeat the forecast over the four adjoining regions they service preceded by an overall forecast. Think of the additional local news that could be reported instead.
4. The public radio/TV legislation from Congress did not envision advertisements. Public funding, audience, and foundation donations were seen as the way to reduce commercial pressure over this public institution, inspired in part by the more extensive BBC and CBC in the UK and Canada.
5. What started as a “just a little bit of commercial sponsorship,” when Congress got tight some years ago, has now gone wild. Do we really need to be reminded that “support for this station (or for NPR) comes from x, y, z contributors,” about thirty times an hour? Mind-numbing, hour after hour! NPR makes sure to identify corporate sponsorship such as Facebook or Amazon when they are doing reports affecting these companies. But top NPR management defiantly refuses to monitor the corporate character or respect for the law of these and other companies before they give them NPR’s credibility.
The Corporate Crime Reporter provided NPR management with a list of law violations, such as those by Raymond James, an NPR “sponsor” pursuant to asking about any of NPR’s Ad monitoring. NPR boss, the usually incommunicado John Lansing, essentially blew off the inquiry, saying there is no need for a filter to protect the audience.
6. A key reason for Congress creating NPR was to have its affiliates fill local news gaps, largely neglected by the commercial stations. WAMC has spent good money hiring local reporters in upstate eastern New York, western Massachusetts, and Vermont who know and stay on the beat. But national NPR has spent far too much time on entertainment subjects and interviews and not enough time on civic events, reports, and movements, aside from issues of race, gender, and police violence being covered by the mainstream media. Even NPR’s daily birthday announcement almost always features entertainment or professional sports figures. National civic, labor or educational leaders are scarcely noted.
7. More civic news suffers not for lack of time. NPR and affiliates offer plenty of hours for music. Forget about Saturday and Sunday evenings. At some NPR affiliates, 6:00 pm on weekends is sign-off time in favor of entertainment time.
8. NPR often describes the personal plight of people in poverty or suffering from other deprivations, but rarely probes the structural causes or the role of concentrated corporate power in creating the problems. Increasingly, corporate power is shaping an evermore dominant corporate state that allows mercantile values to seriously weaken the social fabric and moral norms of our society.
Not many NPR reporters use words like “corporate crime,” “corporate welfare,” or cover the corporate capturing of agencies, the vast unaudited military budget, or many other realms of American life controlled by “corporatism.” But then what can one expect when they ignore credible civic groups, who have timely evidence of such domination, and keep on interviewing one another inserting four-second sound bites to academics and consulting firms?
NPR’s practice during election periods of having the anchors interview its reporters, who are often youngish, inexperienced, and bland, instead of skilled, fact-reliable outsiders is disappointing. NPR’s election postmortems too often are superficial and lack rigor.
Just recently, an NPR report on the most recent ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline continued its repeated omission of how victims of hackers actually pay in ransom or why such payments can’t be traced. And NPR’s reporting on why our secretive government seems helpless in protecting towns, cities, hospitals, and others who have been hit by ransomware attacks is anemic.
9. Last month to the dismay of some NPR journalists, there was no national obituary on Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General and early civil rights and human rights leader. NPR did devote five minutes remembering a Rockstar.
10. NPR’s blunders are well-known to local affiliates. WAMC, a mid-size station, pays NPR a million dollars a year. But on January 6, 2021, NPR Washington was AWOL – over an hour late in feeding its affiliates reports on the insurrection, which started getting reported by CNN around 2:00 pm. WAMC reporters were furious, and I was told this wasn’t the first time NPR messed up.
There is an omnipresent air of smugness about NPR, such as their constant display of confident ignorance on Congress’ constitutional authority, and Presidential/Executive Branch lawlessness. This shortcoming was especially troubling during Trump’s impeachments. Where are you, Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg, to give tutorials to your younger colleagues who need to be more sensitive to these issues and to their in-house ageism over the years?
11. Then there are the daily irritations. The interlude music is often inappropriate and too long. Marketplace at night with hyper-Jumping Jack, Kai Ryssdal has music as noisy background while he is giving the brief stock market numbers.
Unlike its commercial competition, NPR and PBS’s News Hour start their news programs with ads, something commercial NBC, CBS, and ABC do not do. NPR has puzzles during prime-time evening news time, this itself is a puzzling fillip.
NPR has long had a Public Editor on staff. They almost always respond to listeners’ substantive complaints by saying these are not matters within their jurisdiction. The new Public Editor is Kelly McBride. She insisted on not being on staff but instead on contract from St. Petersburg, Florida. This is the link for the public editor: (https://help.npr.org/contact/s/contact?request=Ask-the-Public-Editor-about-ethics) to protect her independence. After a few tries, she actually returned my calls and reassured me that she is looking out for the listener’s best interest. We’ll see.
It would be good if listener feedback to NPR was made easier and more regularly structured. WAMC has lots of listener feedback on issues chosen daily by its Roundtable and other interview shows. But as one might expect some questions, as about top management salaries and bad advertisers lunching off WAMC’s credibility, seem out of bounds.
I have started a Reporter’s Alert suggesting many kinds of stories that are not covered or only nibbled at by the media. You can see them aggregate at https://reportersalert.org/ and of course, this resource is available for perusal by NPR’s editors and reporters.
There is so much more to learn about NPR. Since NPR gives plenty of time to conservative politicians, an educational bipartisan Congressional hearing and report would be a good way to celebrate the 50th anniversary. It’s just not productive to give NPR a pass simply by comparing it to the rancid competition spoiling our public airwaves for free.