Not All Public Radio Is Equal

On Monday the New York Times had an article about NPR in the Trump era.

It followed up on fallout from a recent interview by All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly with Sect. of State Mike Pompeo that caused him to blow up.

The State Dept. later retaliated against the network by barring a reporter from a press pool and President Trump retweeted conservative talk radio host Mark Levin’s questioning why NPR still exists.

Last week the Trump administration released its annual budget blueprint that again called for ending funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As the Times article notes, previous cuts went nowhere in Congress where even Republican members like having NPR affiliates in their districts despite criticizing the network for a perceived liberal bias to their base.

One aspect of the story I haven’t seen mentioned is that NPR’s SAG-AFTRA contract is set to expire this year.

NPR has long been derided by conservatives. But it’s also been increasingly criticized by progressives for a pro-corporate or centrist bias and for easily caving to right-wing pressure, as in its previous ousting of CEO Vivian Schiller after wall-to-wall pressure from Fox News.

Since 2016, even traditional liberals and centrists have expressed anger at NPR for normalizing Trump and succumbing to “both-siderism” — giving equal weight and coverage to a statement despite it being false.

Kelly’s interview with Pompeo rallied NPR supporters, even recent critics, to Kelly’s side and was followed with remarks by NPR’s CEO in support of Kelly. The network saw a rise in donations and sent out a fundraising email asking donors to “Stand with Mary Louise Kelly.”

Kelly also famously grilled NPR’s then CEO Jarl Mohn on air over his handling of complaints about a senior News Executive. An interview hailed at the time for necessary transparency from a news organization.

It also came soon after NPR and SAG-AFTRA’s last contract negotiations which included a strike threat.

As the LA Times reported:

“SAG-AFTRA has said NPR management is seeking lower minimum salaries for new hires and more flexibility in allowing union work to be contracted out to its 600 member stations, most of which use employees who are not covered by the bargaining unit.”

Since then several newsrooms at NPR affiliates have also voted to unionize including WHYY in Philadelphia and WBUR in Boston, both of which produce nationally syndicated programs.

But there remains a wide gulf between the resources and workplace protections for journalists at various NPR affiliates. In Georgia, for example, no newsroom is unionized and there’s a history of political intimidation, but little open discussion of it locally.

NPR is continuing its efforts to organize its affiliates into regional hubs to try and fill growing local news deserts and better use journalistic resources. I’ve suggested on Twitter replacing state-run GPB with a similar regional hub that would work with WABE in Atlanta instead of directly competing.

But their needs to be a consistent culture of journalistic independence. Especially in coverage of regional stories of national importance, like Georgia’s two Senate races and stand-alone March presidential primary.

Atlanta writer and comedian. Occasional citizen journalist. Diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40. No relation to Steve.

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