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Media Circus

Locally Grown

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 7/13/2005

National Public Radio was policing itself against perceptions of political bias long before the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s recent accusations that the public airwaves tend to favor liberal points of view.

In 2000, NPR created an independent ombudsman office that publicly responds to and investigates listener comments and criticisms. In 2004, it adopted a new “News Code of Ethics and Practices” that sharply circumscribes NPR journalists’ behavior on and off the air. This year, nearly all full-time NPR news staff participated in “fairness and objectivity” workshops.

Despite these and other efforts, some NPR reporters believe that their organization’s credibility is undermined by inconsistent journalistic standards at the radio stations that broadcast—and routinely edit, alter, and add to—NPR programs.

And according to NPR officials, there’s little, if anything, they can do about it.

“I was driving through upstate New York and listening to the local public radio station, and there was this guy on the air ranting,” says one Washington-based NPR news producer, who didn’t want to be identified. “He was talking about the war in Iraq and how wrong it was and how we’re being held hostage as a country by this right-wing administration.”

The NPR producer assumed he had tuned into a Pacifica radio station, one of a small network of community stations that broadcast left-of-center advocacy-journalism programs. “It was actually sort of entertaining,” the producer recalls. “But then I nearly couldn’t believe it when this guy said, ‘In just a few moments we’ll be returning to NPR’s All Things Considered.’”

What the NPR producer was hearing was a pledge drive hosted by Alan Chartock, president of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, a regional network of seven NPR member stations that is a primary source of NPR news in upstate New York and the Berkshires. Chartock’s outspoken political commentary—as well as that of opposing voices—is regularly heard on the stations he manages. He also publishes a blog on WAMC’s web site that has recently featured sharp attacks on the Republican Party, the Bush administration, and “neocons” in general.

“If you took a photo of me in the car,” says the NPR producer, “my jaw would have been on the floor. It really freaked me out. As a producer, I want NPR to be viewed as middle-of-the-road. I want people to think that NPR is fair. But when someone like Chartock gets on the air, it makes us look like a left-of-center organization, just as we believe Fox [cable news] is a right-wing organization because they mix commentary with news. And I guarantee you that Joe Listener out there is not making a distinction between the crazy local guy and the reasonable national organization.”

“It is a source of constant frustration, especially for the political reporters at NPR,” says another NPR reporter who also requested anonymity, “that the local stations will in essence backtrack us to a time two decades ago when NPR was a liberal radio network, when it was the voice of the opposition. We are not that anymore.”

As National Public Radio programs have become more popular—weekly listenership has doubled in the past 10 years to 26 million—NPR’s 780 unique member stations are increasingly adding news and information programs to their programming schedule. Along with that trend comes more locally produced news and public-affairs journalism.

Member stations that broadcast the popular drive-time programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered have the prerogative—by license agreement with NPR—to add local news content to those shows. The type of local content added varies from station to station, ranging from a local host reading local headlines to lengthy reports produced by station news departments that can comprise as much 20 percent of the broadcast hour.

Such flexibility is exactly what member stations envisioned when they banded together to form National Public Radio in 1970, says NPR board Chairman Tim Eby, who is also the station manager of a chain of public radio stations in Ohio.

“When Morning Edition was created 26 years ago, the [format] was developed with the flexibility that stations could go in and out of the national program with local content,” he says. “Over time that flexibility was built into All Things Considered as well.”

But such flexibility also allows journalism of varying quality to be broadcast under the NPR marquee, says Connie Walker, head of Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI), a trade association that encourages its 120 member stations to adopt quality journalism practices. The association has no power to require stations to adhere to the core values it endorses. “Some PRNDI stations do not even have their reporters edited,” Walker says. “I certainly have heard that and I think that it’s a problem.”

Likewise, NPR officials insist they have no authority over locally produced news content. And while the typical license agreement between NPR and its member stations allows NPR to inspect and monitor local stations to ensure they comply with NPR policy, NPR officials who spoke with City Paper acknowledge that the national organization does not even regularly listen to the local programming that is folded into its programs and marketed to listeners under the NPR brand.

Which is perfectly fine with WAMC’s Chartock, who bristles at the suggestion that his stations reflect poorly on NPR. “NPR ought to remember that it is a servant of the member stations,” he says. “We invented [NPR], and when it was failing we saved it and gave them extra money. If those guys think they’re gonna look down their nose at us, they got another thing coming. The day that NPR tries to monitor my news content I want the right to monitor theirs.”

Chartock says he resents any implication that his radio station is not balanced, asserting that WAMC’s editorial neutrality is maintained by including as many conservative commentators on the air as liberal ones. He points out that NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is also a political analyst on the Fox cable news network.

“I’m aghast some weeks when I turn on Fox News and I see Juan Williams giving his opinions on the news of the week,” Chartock says. “[NPR] wants to say they don’t do that? They’re giving opinions. Every time I see them they’re opening their mouths about their opinions.”

Whatever quality-control challenges NPR’s decentralized nature creates is outweighed by the advantage of unique local programming, says Stephen Yasko, manager of WTMD (89.7 FM), an NPR member station in Towson that plays mostly adult-alternative music.

“Public radio stations reflect the values and texture of the communities they serve,” says Yasko, who has also worked in the NPR member services department. “If NPR or any national organization had too much control or input into every station’s local personality, then you would lose the very thing that makes us what we are. So if Alan Chartock is what Albany and upstate New York created and what works for them, that’s a beautiful thing, no matter what some outsiders might say.”

NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says he only “occasionally” hears criticism from listeners about local content. “Public radio has a lot of strong personalities in it, and a lot of these strong personalities have ended up running strong stations,” Dvorkin says. “Many stations don’t operate in that way, but there are many that do. But I don’t think [Chartock] is typical of the system.”

Indeed, many NPR member stations have developed into formidable news organizations in their own right, and have adopted strict ethical and newsgathering guidelines. For example, the editorial policy of Vermont Public Radio, as published on the web site of the six-station chain, restricts even its talk-show hosts from expressing political opinions on the air.

At WYPR (88.1 FM), the leading NPR news outlet in Baltimore, the station’s news department mixes both locally produced political commentary and news reports into the 5-10 a.m. Morning Edition time slot.

WYPR’s news director is Fraser Smith, a former Sun deputy editorial page editor who still contributes a weekly op-ed column to the daily paper. In addition to assigning, editing, and sometimes reporting local news stories, Smith also delivers an essay on the air every Thursday during Morning Edition.

Such a management structure is inconsistent with current NPR news standards, says NPR executive training producer Jonathan Kern, a former senior editor at All Things Considered who now runs NPR’s anti-bias workshops. “Our code of ethics says, if you’re in the news division, you do not express opinions on the air,” Kern says. “And I think that’s a good measure for any station.”

WYPR’s Smith did not respond to a request for comment, but his senior news reporter, Sunni Khalid (a former NPR Cairo bureau chief), defended the Baltimore station’s mingling of commentary and reporting by the same journalist who also directs its news coverage.

“We have striven very hard to avoid conflicts of interest here,” Khalid says. “When Fraser [Smith] goes out for a news story you know it’s a news story. When he has his Thursday essay, it’s clearly identified as commentary.”

If such a practice violates NPR standards, Khalid says: “Well, we’re not NPR, we’re WYPR. We run NPR news, and they occasionally ask us to do a story for their broadcasts, but otherwise we have nothing to do with them.”

Khalid acknowledges that WYPR listeners often don’t make that distinction. “It’s a compliment to us when people can’t tell the difference,” he says. “Because that shows that we maintain the same quality standards.”

NPR officials say they would like to improve the local news content of member stations, and are in the planning stages of a “local news initiative” that will channel funds to member stations to help establish stronger local news divisions, as well as expand training programs.

But compliance by member stations with NPR news standards, they say, will likely remain voluntary.

For the record, City Paper has not formally adopted editorial or ethics guidelines, nor does it restrict its reporters from writing political commentary or participating in political activity.

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