NPR’s Public Editor Finally Writes About Georgia Public Broadcasting … and Completely Erases its Flaws

GPB Billboard with Fox News Billboard Behind

After a tumultuous year in which Georgia played an outsized role in national politics, and after years of political interference, conflicts of interest, and cronyism at its state-run public broadcaster, NPR’s Public Editor finally wrote something about GPB.

But instead of forthrightly tackling its ethical lapses, the column praises one reporter’s access journalism scoop and uses it to promote NPR’s regional news hubs.

Never mind that no such hub exists in Georgia and in fact a wasteful, petty turf battle between GPB and Public Broadcasting Atlanta has been ongoing for over five years.

All while newspapers outside of Atlanta are shrinking and disinformation from alt-right outlets masquerading as local news sites are opportunistically filling the gap.

As such, the column paints GPB and NPR as heroes at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency rather than enablers throughout his rise. Hardly the self-examination the moment requires.

For citizens wondering whether public broadcasting is structurally capable of standing up to demagogues BEFORE it’s too late, NPR’s past refusal to stand up to Boss Hoggs in Georgia and continued unwillingness to own up to it now should be a warning.

In the column titled “NPR Had the Leaked Trump Tape, Too” Public Editor Kelly McBride reports how GPB’s elections reporter Stephen Fowler was leaked the recording of President Trump pressuring Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the state’s results.

The story was first obtained by the Washington Post but GPB and NPR broadcast the audio soon after.

The tape was also leaked to several other outlets including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta’s WSB television.

Whoever leaked it, leaked it a lot.

After describing the procedure involved in the local reporter and a national editor producing the story, McBride uses the episode as “a window into NPR’s strategy around local journalism.”

As to why Fowler got the audio: “He knows why the official who leaked the tape contacted him. ‘I’ve been on the ground covering Georgia elections for two and a half years and developed a broad range of sources both in and out of Georgia,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in touch with a lot of people who are frustrated and annoyed at how the president has attacked Georgia elections and bashed Georgia election workers.’”

The story was certainly newsworthy, indeed impeachable, yet in the past, access relationships with Georgia officials has also been turned against non-partisan and liberal critics.

Such as the Secretary of State’s questionable investigation of opponents of the state’s complex new voting system. A story GPB had almost exclusively: Georgia Voting Machine Critics Investigated For Alleged Polling Place Violations | Georgia Public Broadcasting (gpb.org)

Was the Trump tape leaked to GPB as a reward?

Trump-like investigations of his critics was something Raffensperger’s predecessor Brian Kemp also engaged in.

And Kemp’s own access relationships with favored Georgia journalists is itself a swamp of ethical concerns.

Kemp is now the Governor of Georgia and thus the person GPB’s CEO is actively trying to charm and appease.

Fowler himself has written for CJR about the political intimidation Georgia’s journalists face.

And indeed, soon after the Trump tape leak, he was barred from the Georgia GOP’s election night watch party. Likely a retaliation for his publicly sparring on Twitter with party chairman David Shafer. An important aspect of the saga the Public Editor left out.

Meanwhile, a reporter for GPB’s rival WABE was allowed in, perhaps its reward for a recent “both sides” story that also aired nationally and compared Trump’s refusal to concede Georgia to Stacey Abrams’ response in 2018.

Should NPR affiliate journalists be more combative with local officials? Or maintain a “Nice Polite” appeasement? How does NPR respond when competing affiliates and reporters are played against each other by rival politicians?

The Public Editor doesn’t say. It’s just the good old story of a scoop.

The national scrutiny brought by Georgia’s 2018 Gubernatorial race and 2020 Presidential and Senate races, and Trump’s turning on Raffensperger and Kemp, are likely why more adversarial journalism is taking place.

Left to its pre-2018 Red State status, embarrassing stories about Georgia’s political and media establishments would remain downplayed or covered up.

Yet such incestuous relationships continue and erode public trust.

Was it all just a game until Trump got out of hand? Is it all who you know or went to school with? Who helps who move up the political/media career ladder?

In Georgia, GPB is the nexus of the state’s political and media elite, broadcasting highlights of the state legislature, hosting press club-sponsored debates, serving as the fallback gig/retirement home for well-connected local journalists, and giving ample airtime to consultants and politicians-turned-lobbyists.

All while never questioning the corrupting nature of it all.

As a reminder, GPB has been housing a Fox News bureau since 2004 with no objection from NPR.

If GPB were housing an MSNBC bureau I cannot help but wonder if Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin would be denouncing GPB and NPR and calling for the resignation of their CEOs.

GPB’s current CEO, Teya Ryan, was first hired during Sonny Perdue’s administration.

In 2012 she agreed to hire the state’s Senate Majority Leader for a $150,000 a year job on the urging of Gov. Nathan Deal.

At the same time, plans began for GPB to acquire daytime control of Georgia State University’s student funded WRAS, planning that completely excluded public or student input, to directly compete with Atlanta’s longtime independent NPR affiliate WABE.

It all reeked of a quid pro quo.

Facing no repercussions from anyone in public media, Ryan bragged in Commission meetings about still being able to bring executives like PBS President Paula Kerger to meet with Deal and explain how public media works “in a red state.”

Once GPB critics, Cox Media and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution became colluding partners in the theft of WRAS, seeking their own entre to the NPR audio brand.

Again, with no objection from NPR.

Since 2014, GPB and PBA’s direct competition on TV and radio has cost both millions. Something the Public Editor ignores while praising NPR’s initiatives to create cooperative Regional News Hubs.

I have long called for such a hub in Georgia, with GPB giving up its unethical control of WRAS and placing more reporters in cities outside Atlanta.

Such an effort is even more urgent as right-wing talk still dominates most of the state and upstart outlets like the Georgia Star News are actively creating an alt-right echo chamber.

Pro-Trump Republican state lawmakers can use them to spread conservative propaganda, formerly pro-Trump Republicans like Kemp and Raffensperger can still use WSB radio, and all of them control the purse strings at GPB.

(Georgia Democrats, and their own consultants, only seem to want their own access interviews on GPB. Its Fox News bureau, financial losses, layoffs, and cronyism go unquestioned even at legislative oversight hearings.)

While acknowledging the differences in resources between NPR affiliates, McBride ignores the thorny questions of conflicts of interest.

Different affiliates also have vastly different cultures of transparency and accountability.

After a summer of unionization efforts, management shakeups, and self-reporting about equity issues at various NPR affiliates, no such accountability has come to GPB.

So, who does hold a non-unionized, politically controlled NPR affiliate accountable?

Other media outlets like the New York Times or the New Yorker? But what if their own audio podcasts now appear on NPR affiliates including GPB?

New non-profits like ProPublica or the Georgia Recorder? Even if they’ve also become “reporting partners” with GPB?

Cox-sponsored journalism schools like UGA’s Grady College, whose students intern there and at the AJC?

Koch-sponsored outlets like McBride’s Poynter Institute?

All have been silent up to now.

If at the end of the Trump presidency, NPR of all institutions is still unwilling to examine how we got here and hopes to simply return to a “we got the story, too” normal, it doesn’t bode well for the future.

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

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