Deal is full of potential conflicts of interest
When National Public Radio announced a deal to co-produce a new radio show, "Day to Day," with Slate.com, NPR called it an "historic collaboration." This would be the first time in its 33-year history that NPR co-produced a show with another commercial media enterprise. While online media fans may find comfort in one of its own scoring such a prestigious show with NPR, media watchdogs could be concerned.
The problem? NPR's deal with a Microsoft-owned publication brings up possible conflicts on Microsoft coverage (or lack thereof), as do the funding of NPR by Microsoft and by Chairman Bill Gates' charitable foundation. Plus, the NPR-Slate partnership is far more than just a radio show. The non-profit and for-profit entities will combine to offer cross-media advertisements and underwriting in the future, a deal that smells much more like Big Media than public radio.
For those anti-corporate types already smarting from the FCC ownership rule changes, this partnership is another poke in the gut of independent, answer-to-no-one journalism (a rare beast indeed). "Slate is a brilliant publication, and I love everything they do," said Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC's "On the Media" and a former NPR correspondent. "But this deal makes me queasy on general principles. I don't anticipate any conflict problems on the ground, but I wish the show were co-produced by a foundation, or Burger King, or anyone else, including Satan." Ouch.
The appearance of conflicts
Nevertheless, Garfield looks forward to the radio show's premiere in July. Slate itself has done a remarkable job of covering its corporate parent during the high-profile Microsoft antitrust trial, and recently won a National Magazine Award in the online category. There's no reason not to trust Slate on Microsoft coverage, but some people who listen to NPR would be quick to complain about a show co-produced by Microsoft-owned Slate. Garfield anticipates a torrent of mail from these people, who will point to this as proof that NPR is a whore for The Man.
If they need more ammo, there's plenty out there. NPR takes in a huge chunk of money from corporate underwriters, and underwriting messages sound suspiciously similar to real advertisements. Also, Microsoft became a corporate sponsor for NPR last June, but NPR's executive vice president, Ken Stern, told me he didn't know how much money changed hands. However, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation posts its grants online, and it's easy to see it has given $541,000 to NPR in 2000, and another $807,800 to NPR last July.
For deeper conspiracy theorists, there's more. Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, who helped cement the NPR deal and will appear on the show, is married to the Gates Foundation's co-chair and president, Patty Stonesifer. So when Kinsley went to the bargaining table with NPR, he likely knew exactly how much Microsoft and Gates have done for the radio network in the past.
Stern calls the Gates-Microsoft-Slate-NPR connections "all unrelated activities," and argues that Slate has proven its independence from Microsoft, and NPR has erected "firewalls between its business relationships and the newsroom." He says that NPR approached Slate initially, and that it had nothing to do with Microsoft or Gates. Stern downplays questions about conflicts, and says "the proof is in the pudding ultimately, and our editorial side won't pull any punches."
A deeper deal
Though neither NPR nor Slate would admit to being left of center, or having a more liberal audience, that very real overlap makes the deal a good match. But the liberal critics at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) aren't afraid of being known as "liberal," and don't like this partnership despite being on the same side ideologically. "This deal is part of a sad trend," says Steve Rendall, senior analyst at FAIR. "Microsoft will be a major story in the U.S. for some time. Will reporters for NPR or 'Day to Day' feel totally free to report on Microsoft? Plus you have a further intrusion of commercialism into what was once called public radio."
How un-public radio is this deal? Slate publisher Cyrus Krohn told me there were plans in the works to offer "cross-media opportunities," where advertisers could underwrite NPR programming and purchase ads on Slate. "We would keep it clean," he said, "the business models wouldn't converge. There's nothing questionable, seedy or awkward about the relationship." Krohn noted that NPR also had a deal with Microsoft's Windows Media site, with streaming audio available there. He says "Day to Day" will be promoted on the MSN portal, which would attract a younger audience.
While others expect NPR to play by different media business rules, Krohn lauds them for evolving and being "rightly aggressive" in the fight for listeners and eyeballs.
But some critics think they've gone too far, and think this deal deserves a lot more scrutiny. Robert Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times' TV and radio columnist, was one of the first to object to the partnership, and gave kudos to Chicago Public Radio's decision not to run "Day to Day." "Frankly, I'm surprised there haven't been more questions raised about this arrangement," he said in an e-mail. Feder doesn't object to Bill Gates or corporations underwriting NPR programming, but he feels that NPR loses control by forming a partnership with a corporate-owned entity.
"I also am concerned about some of the promotional aspects of the deal, particularly those involving NPR's cross-promotion of Slate's Web site and MSN," he said. "Don't we have enough of that going on among commercial media? At a time when we need as many strong, independent journalistic voices as possible to uncover and report on corporate America and its many scandals, I fear that this [deal] is a step in the wrong direction."
In this case, public radio stations and their millions of listeners can make an impact. If the stations don't pick up the show, or listeners tune out, that protest will send a strong message about the commercialization of public radio.