Foundations provide around 5 percent of public broadcasting's budget. Audiences may not be as concerned about these grants, but foundations also have agendas. Melinda Penkava investigates.
March 31, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: Corporate funding frequently worries public broadcasting audiences. They wonder if their presumably non-commercial programs they enjoy are affected by the underwriters. We have some figures for you from late last year. Corporate grants account for roughly 15 percent of public broadcast funding. A quarter of the budget comes from subscribers -- more for radio. Still more comes from local, state and federal governments and from a wide variety of fund-raising efforts. Foundations provide about five percent of public broadcasting's budget. Generally audiences are not so concerned about foundation grants, but perhaps they ought to be. Foundation sponsors like governments sometimes have agendas. We asked reporter Melinda Penkava to look into the potential impact of foundations on programming.
MELINDA PENKAVA: If you were listening to National Public Radio in February you may have heard this:
ANNOUNCER: Support for National Public Radio comes from the State of Kuwait in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait's liberation, on the web at KuwaitThanksAmerica.org.
MELINDA PENKAVA: The first time I heard it I was on the air. The underwriting credit came on seconds before I was to begin discussing the U.S. air strikes on Kuwait's neighbor Iraq. There was barely time to register that the underwriter was a foreign government entwined with the topic I would be discussing. It didn't change how I was going to talk about the previous day's air strikes, but I had to wonder if listeners might think that it did. The underwriting credit ran for three weeks. NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin says he heard from hundreds of listeners.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I was appalled. What concerned me and, and concerned other was the impression that would be left that NPR was being influenced by a sovereign government that is in the news from time to time and it's also because NPR goes to Iraq to cover the ongoing story there!
MELINDA PENKAVA:: NPR management said that the Kuwait money went to NPR's general news fund and not to specific coverage of Kuwait, but because that wasn't clear to listeners, NPR has since decided to change its policy. Ken Stern is NPR's executive vice president.
KEN STERN: We're not going to take foreign government underwriting any more.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: Elsewhere in public radio the daily business show Marketplace receives funding to cover Japan from the Japan Foundation financed by the Japanese government. Jim Russell is general manager of Marketplace.
JIM RUSSELL: What happened very early in Marketplace's existence is that we determined that there were one or two places in the entire world that were absolutely essential and defining if one was going to do a global business and economics show, and Japan was one of them. After that decision was made, public radio international went out and looked for funding.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: Usually when foundations give money to public broadcasting what they want to see covered is not so much a geographic area as in the case of Japan as it is an area of concern. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation underwrites coverage of Health on both NPR and Marketplace. Among the foundations goals is having basic health care at a reasonable cost available to all. The Pew Charitable Trust has financed NPR's changing face of America series. One of its missions is to increase public trust in the election process. The Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation [sp?] promotes entrepreneurship and underwrites coverage of that. NPR says that as a larger news organization it has a thick fire wall, a comfortable distance between its reporting and editing crew and the foundations who have provided money. And both NPR and Marketplace say that it is the news operations who come up with a list of areas they plan to cover first and then leave it to their fundraising sides to find foundations willing to underwrite it. But for Jim Ledbetter, author of Made Possible by The Death of Public Broadcasting in the U.S., it is irrelevant who approaches whom about funding.
JIM LEDBETTER: [LAUGHS] This, this reminds me of Madonna explaining why it was okay for her to appear in a video-- in chains, and she said you know I put the chains on myself; whether the initiative comes from the, the foundation or it comes from the, the stations or the, or the producers, in the end the, the result is the same -- the editorial time is being tailored to a, a, a greater or lesser degree to the, the needs of the funders rather than the, the editorial judgment of the executives.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: NPR says most of its foundation contributions are earmarked for something specific or something as broad as international coverage. Marketplace says ten percent of its budget relies on this. A recent check of the marketplace archives found significantly more references to Japan which it receives funding for than to any other country. And James Ledbetter worries that if a foundation chooses to fund one area of coverage, short shrift could be given to another area that didn't catch the fancy of a foundation.
JAMES LEDBETTER: There's a scarcity of, of time - there's only a couple of hours a day that National Public Radio can devote to, you know, nationwide news programming, so you can just never know whether those topics would, would, would make it on to the air without that specific funding or not. It may not be pernicious influence, but the--is undeniably a form of influence, and it's one that I think really has to be monitored very closely.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: James Ledbetter says it can be harder to keep tabs on the links between foundations and programs that air on public TV; lacking a central news operation there is a more scattershot approach with independent producers and individual stations looking for the financing for their documentaries. MAN: Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.
MELINDA PENKAVA: In 1996, KQED TV in San Francisco produced and distributed a documentary on Paul Erlich who is author of the book The Population Bomb. In the mid-60s he had predicted calamity if the world's population were not brought under control.
ANNOUNCER: [National] funding has been provided by the following foundations.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Peggy Lauer heads the Fred Gellert [sp?] Foundation which provided 50,000 dollars for the Erlich project. Her foundation wants to raise alarm on environmental and overpopulation issues and so it funded the documentary. PEGGY LAUER: We have a certain expectation or not expectation but a--assumption that certain information will come out that will probably support what our thoughts are.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Peggy Lauer says it is not as interesting to her to have an opposing view in a documentary belittling her concerns.
WOMAN: If it's too balanced, then it's-- then you're taking a lot out or you're - or you're - or you're confusing-- the issue - you're muddying the waters.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: Michael Schwarz was senior producer of the Paul Erlich documentary. As an independent producer he has to find funding himself now and says that he's never had a foundation exert editorial influence on him. He downplays the question of influence. MICHAEL SCHWARZ: You know foundations don't have a profit motive; corporations do. And although foundations may have agendas, generally their ingenda--agendas have to do with improving the world in some way.
MELINDA PENKAVA:: Journalists though are trained to be on the lookout for agendas. Foundations may not have a profit motive, but they may capitalize on the underwriting more than a corporation which sponsors a program to buy some goodwill. Corporations do not direct the funding to go to a certain area. Jim Russell's program Marketplace is underwritten by General Electric as well as by foundations.
JIM RUSSELL: I find really ironic that people are critical of big corporations, among them our major funder, GE, for what they perceive as a likelihood of conflict of interest or attempted influence peddling. The irony is that I think that's a greater problem with foundations than it's ever been with a corporation.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Eleven years ago an NPR board member quit in opposition to the directed foundation money. Now it's established as a piece of the revenue pie alongside contributions from listeners, corporations and the government. Some suggest the piecemeal way that public radio had to finance itself keeps any one sector from exerting undue influence. Listeners and viewers may grumble about more and more underwriting credits showing up on the air, but in the end for the news consumer it might must be preferable to hear that full disclosure of who is paying the freight. For On the Media, I'm Melinda Penkava. [MUSIC] 38:30
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up: reality TV for real --documentarian R.J. Cutler takes American High to PBS. Also Mary Richards is cast in bronze and movie blurbs -- they're worse than you thought.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for On the Media is provided by the Ottoman Empire -- an Empire with a Mandate from Suleiman the Magnificent to promote the advancement and diffusion of Turkish artistic and military excellence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.