Whenever NPR's Talk of the Nation dips into the topic of immigration, the national call-in show's telephone board lights up like a Christmas tree.
Immigration is an especially hot-button topic. So it's not surprising that when NPR began running a funding credit on Nov. 10 for the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify program, my office heard from listeners and a few concerned public radio station managers.
They all questioned NPR's judgment in running the credit about the federal computer program that employers use voluntarily to check the legal status of new hires. At the least, some said, it is not a good fit for NPR. Some suggested NPR is endorsing E-Verify.
First, it's helpful to explain funding credits. Since NPR is a non-commercial network, it accepts money for what's called "underwriting." Local public radio stations do the same. The 10-second underwriting credits, which appear at various points in NPR programming, come from foundations, banks, auto companies, other businesses, and federal agencies.
Here's the text that is generating controversy: "'Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), offering E-Verify, confirming the legal working status of new hires. At DHS dot gov slash E-Verify."
E-Verify runs a free electronic database system for employers to scan 450 million Social Security and 60 million DHS records to confirm if new hires are eligible to work. Two states — Arizona and Mississippi — have made E-Verify mandatory for employers, as has the federal government for its new hires. Beginning Jan. 15, federal government contractors will be disqualified from competing for new contracts if they do not use E-Verify.
"In very basic terms, the goal of E-Verify is to assist employers in maintaining a legal workforce and to protect jobs for authorized U.S. workers," said Bill Wright, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. According to his agency's statistics, 96.1 percent of employees are confirmed as "work authorized" instantly or within 24 hours.
Some listeners say the program is far from benign. In fact, the program is the subject of lawsuits, court cases and Congressional investigation. "E-Verify is an extremely problematic program," writes Mary Hopkins."Big Brother aside, it 'verifies employment eligibility' against a filthy database, is ridden with delays and errors, and has caused a great deal of trouble for a lot of innocent people, including US citizens."
"The E-Verify system was being promoted to target illegal immigrants," wrote Richard Imm. "This program is error-filled, and is yet one more racist intrusion of the Bush administration into the business world and the private lives of all job-seekers. I recently became a Sustaining Member of my local NPR station (WNMU-FM) — was this a mistake?"
Then this from general manager Matt Martin of public radio station KALW, in San Francisco: "Given the political uses to which DHS has been put and the fact that listeners want to be assured that NPR (and by extension, KALW) can be depended on for independent critical coverage of this and other government agencies, the credit may not belong in a news program."
DHS is in the midst of a two-month marketing campaign to promote E-Verify. "We are picking NPR because of its national reach," Wright said. "NPR has morning shows, reaches a lot of commuters out there. It's a trusted network and has a wide following and reaches a lot of demographics across the country." E-Verify funding credits also are carried on Latino USA, a show that NPR distributes but does not produce.
But there are problems with E-Verify, according to a May 2008 Government Accountability Office study, which found the service is vulnerable to employer fraud and misuse and noted that it can't ferret out stolen documents.
Another problem concerns the database's accuracy, said Tyler Moran, employment policy director for the National Immigration Law Center, a group that promotes legal rights for immigrants. "The error rate disproportionately affects foreign-born workers and that includes naturalized citizens and legal immigrants," she said. "It's often because of their names." Moran wrote a paper last month on how E-Verify has hurt legal workers.
So, should NPR run these funding credits? NPR has accepted underwriting from the government for 20 years, said John King, operations manager for sponsorship.
"In addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting," he said, "we've accepted underwriting from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Postal Service, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities." None, though, has generated anywhere near as much controversy as the E-Verify credit.
NPR has strict guidelines about funding it will accept. Those guidelines indicate a funding credit must be 10 seconds and cannot contain price information, an explicit inducement to buy or a call to action. For example, a spot could not say, "Stop by our showroom to see a model." A credit can name a program or a store and tell listeners how to get more information. "Learn more about" is not considered a call to action but rather a way to provide listeners information, according to NPR's legal office.
E-Verify's Wright admits the service has some minor flaws. And certainly it has detractors in Congress and among groups advocating for immigrants. Even so, the E-Verify credit does not violate NPR's guidelines. Just because some listeners might not like the funder, or even the program it promotes, that is not a strong enough reason for NPR to reject an underwriter.
Accepting underwriting is not the same as approving the message, NPR managers said.
"The underwriting credit does not advocate a position about immigration," said Blake Truitt, senior vice president of National Public Media, NPR's sponsorship subsidiary. "The credit describes a DHS service."
But there is another potentially more serious concern. Will NPR do stories about E-Verify in hopes of keeping the funding coming? Or will DHS be able to influence NPR's coverage since it's helping keep NPR afloat?
The answer to such questions is no because of what's known in the news business as an impenetrable firewall between NPR news and the underwriting department. NPR reporters pay no attention to the funders, and the funders have no influence over what is covered, said managing editor Brian Duffy.
But the perception of a conflict can exist. Sean Collins, executive producer of Latino USA, is concerned about this since his show reports in-depth on immigration issues.
"There's a perception of a conflict when you hear reporting and then you hear a funding credit that's from a particular point of view and you realize the program was funded in part by that government organization or entity," said Collins. "It just makes you a little queasy. I don't think we do a good enough job of reiterating the concept of a firewall. It really does exist."
"Having this funding credit on air would have no bearing on how I handled future stories," said Ludden. "I certainly would have no idea if this particular credit would air in the same show or segment as one of my pieces. More to the point, I would have no problem continuing to report on the program's shortcomings, and the controversy over it."
But in any future reporting on E-Verify, Duffy says that NPR will need to also mention at the same time that E-Verify is a sponsor. "If Jennifer Ludden does a story on it for NPR, we should clearly disclose that E-Verify is something that NPR is receiving underwriting for," said Duffy. "We want to be as transparent as possible. We have no secrets."
Another concern — one that involves all funding credits — is that at many local public radio stations funding credits are read on-air by the same announcers who give the local news. This blurs what should be a clear distinction between news and underwriting.
In my view, local stations, and NPR, should take whatever steps necessary to make sure that listeners don't associate underwriting with legitimate news reporting.
NPR will continue running the E-Verify credit until Feb. 9.