Is it time for state funding of media to go?

The Washington News Council ruled on a disagreement between the Vitae Foundation and KUOW regarding a story that KUOW ran last April. It should be well noted that this is only the fifth time in its 14 year history that the WNC has had to make a ruling, the vast majority of the disagreements brought before it being mediated.

In five out of six complaints brought before the council it ruled in favor of Vitae, deciding that KUOW did have the responsibility to get a response from Vitae before running the story and that, having made some factual errors in the original story, KUOW should have corrected those errors on-air, not just online. The only complaint that went in KUOW’s favor was that of wanting them to run a full, on-air story on Vitae. In regards to this, Joel Kaplan of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting puts it best “A credible and responsible news organization promptly corrects its mistakes,” Mr. Kaplan said. “It does not trade its most valuable commodity — its airtime — as a way to apologize by promoting a story on an organization that does not pass the newsworthy test.” () And I think Vitae’s request for a full story had more to do with the fact that KUOW chose not to get a response or make timely and appropriate corrections to the original story, not that they wanted a full on story just because.

One thing that is absent in all of this though (and not without reason, since WNC should remain apolitical and like any good judiciary, rule only on the cases before it, not the greater themes those cases depict), is the fact that both KUOW and Planned Parenthood receive government funding. Does this make them more likely to air biased stories portraying other organizations that receive government funding in a kinder light? There are certainly critiques of private news sources airing preferential stories about organizations from which they may benefit and regardless of the legitimacy of those critiques, these organizations always quick to point out a potential conflict of interest (i.e. in a story about GE, NBC will point out that they are owned by them). Should KUOW at least point these facts out as well? Maybe not. The connection, after all, isn’t quite as close; Planned Parenthood doesn’t own KUOW. But the whole arrangement of government funded media is just a bit too Pravda-esque. And why continue with it anyway?

Norm Arkans, the Associate VP of Media Relations and Communications for the University of Washington told me his office is the one that lobbies for funding from the University for KUOW and said that the only funding KUOW receives from the University goes to cover most of the station manager’s salary. All the other operating expenses of the station come from listener support and underwriting. Of course, not included in the station manager’s salary or in the operating budget as a whole are all the benefits an employee of KUOW receives: pension, health care, etc.

News Director Guy Nelson says differently, stating that “KUOW gets no state funding (not even from the UW, though we are considered UW staff) and only a small amount of CPB funding.”

According to their website, KUOW receives 89% of its funding from individuals and business support. The important question is, how much of the remaining 11% comes from the tooth fairy?

In regards to government funding in general he adds, “while decreasing federal funding wouldn’t change much for KUOW, it could really hurt small stations around the country who are much more dependent, leaving their listeners with no alternative to commercially owned radio and news. So for that reason, independent public radio is very important and government funding is a necessary part of that.”

For what it’s worth, Arkans said KUOW is “a good news organization” with “a strong commitment to fairness.” Okay. Is that “strong commitment” sort of like the “serious consideration” that KUOW said during mediation it would give to running an on-air story about Vitae? Words are nice but they ring hollow when confronted with actions such as these.

Nelson states that “every news organization makes occasional errors. Neither the WNC or CPB said or implied that KUOW is biased in its coverage or lacking in professionalism. Anyone who alleges a conflict needs to come up with evidence to support their claims.” Hmm, does not owning up to your mistakes immediately following their happening and having to go before the Washington News Council where you’re ruled against not constitute evidence? Well, certainly not the level of evidence required to convict beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law but not reaching that level of evidence has never seemed to stop the media (and I refer to all media, not just KUOW or NPR). Maybe NPR’s firing of Juan Williams because he dared to answer a question truthfully instead of politically-correct constitutes evidence.

For the record, Planned Parenthood and the reporter of the original story, Meghan Walker, declined to comment on this story.

And while we’re exploring government funding of the media let’s take a gander at Voice of America. Since the passage of the Smith-Mundt Act in 1948 VOA has been prohibited from broadcasting within the US (although, thanks to the interwebs you can listen to streaming audio online). Why? Evil, scary propaganda, like, you know, a recent story about Algae as Fuel. Wait. What? You mean like this story on NPR: “Could Algae Be Milked Like A Cow?” Maybe not like a cow but certainly like a grant from the CPB! So if VOA is not allowed to broadcast stories about algae because they receive government funding how is it that NPR, who also receives government funding can?

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