NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some stories we're following here today at NPR News. The CEOs of the Big Three U.S. automakers are back in Washington today, they drove in hybrids. They have been making their case before Congress for a $34 billion dollar rescue package to help them stay afloat. And Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke today sought more government efforts to stem home foreclosures. He outlined a number of options to reduce preventable foreclosures including a plan that will allow the stressed homeowners to refinance into more affordable federally insured mortgages. Details on those stories and of course much more later today, on All Things Considered.
Tomorrow it's Science Friday, and Ira Flatow will be here for the latest on the UN climate talks in Poland plus by Antarctic ice sheets may slide into the sea faster than we thought and physics 101 for President-elect Obama. That's all coming up tomorrow on Talk of the Nation Science Friday. If you listen to NPR regularly chances are you've heard the funding credits. Ten second acknowledgments of contributions to NPR by a company, a foundation or in some cases, a government agency. NPR's Ombudsman has received a lot of emails and phone calls about this one.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Announcer: From the Department of Homeland Security, offering e-verify, confirming the legal working status of new hires at dhs.gov/everify.
CONAN: In just a moment we'll talk with Alicia Shepard, NPR's Ombudsman about that funding credit some listeners have told her it's not a good fit for NPR or even racist, and they've asked the funding credits influence NPR's programs and reporting. If you have a question for the Ombudsman about NPR funding credits, give us a call, our phone number 800-898-8255, email is firstname.lastname@example.org, you can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. And with us here in Studio 3A is Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation today.
ALICIA SHEPARD: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And the complaints about the e-verify well, I know you looked into it.
SHEPARD: Yes, I looked into just - this was a chance, Neal, to explain what funding credits are to listeners, but also as you mentioned some of them were unhappy with this particular one, and I think it largely stems because behind it is the issue of immigration, and this particular program, e-verify, is an electronic database that combines DHS numbers, and Social Security numbers and is a way to verify the person can work legally in the United States. It is really no more than an extension of the I-9, paperwork that one as to fill out when one is hired at a job. But this program has about a 96 percent accuracy rate, i.e. somebody could put their name is and their social security number and four percent might get back - one saying you you're not legal when in fact you are. And so, if there are potentials for abuse, but you have to just look at the issue of what is a funding credit.
CONAN: OK, what is a funding credit?
SHEPARD: And in some ways it is not unlike an advertisement, but in public radio it is called the funding credit because it differs from advertisements in that it is a neutral naming by a corporation or a foundation. It's not asking you to do anything, it's not saying we have the biggest or the best, or anything, and it's only 10 seconds long, and I'm told by the people in underwriting that NPR listeners are comfortable with, by in large, NPR funding credits, they are vetted, and they are used as a way of getting revenue and how much revenue? Well, I did check on that and about 50 percent of NPR's revenue comes from corporations and foundations, and then investments of funding credit. The other 50 percent comes from listeners who donate to their local stations.
CONAN: And in the controversy - and this is a controversial funding credit, if you were the Ku Klux Klan, could you rent funding credit out on National Public Radio.
SHEPARD: No, there are bylaws, and things that are strict what they can and can't take. For the two that are clear in the bylaws are guns and cigarettes. NPR does take funding credit from alcohol companies.
CONAN: And one other aspect that is different between an underwriting credit and advertising is you can't say, as you mentioned, come on down, and this is, and you know, buy this...
SHEPARD: This week only, we've got a special...
CONAN: No, no, codes of actions and these funding credits are read by neutral and announcers, the guy you hear on the air all the time is by a guy named Frank Devars(ph).
SHEPARD: And he's a non-journalist, and I think NPR uses him regularly so that he is branded as the person whose doing the funding credits.
CONAN: And when NPR journalists report on E-Verify, the one that's been controversial here, they are encouraged to mention they have received funding from this particular program. Here we have NPR's Jennifer Ludden mentioned E-Verify earlier this week in a story that she did.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: The Department of Homeland Security has aggressively encouraged businesses to consult a Federal database to check worker's legal status. It's a program called E-Verify which DHS promotes in a number of ways, including funding credits on NPR.
CONAN: That's immigration correspondent, Jennifer Ludden from a piece on a Work Place Rage, which aired on All Things Considered on Tuesday. And it's interesting, NPR also gets a bunch of underwriting money from oh, people who publish books and movies. And we don't necessarily report that, you know, this month we're reviewing "Quantum of Solace" and they're among them. I'm just making that up. I don't know if they are or not.
SHEPARD: This ah - I think of something that I would suggest that NPR be more sensitive about, and I think that this particular issue of the E-Verify credit has brought a lot of attention, and it would think of something now NPR needs to look at. Are they going to be consistent? And every time there's a funding credit for which there is a story do they need to disclose that? I mean, that's that, I am independent of NPR. I don't have any role in administering or changing or demanding policy. But I do think that one of the most important things in the news business is consistency.
CONAN: So, if they do it in the E-Verify contacts issue, they should probably do it in all those contexts.
SHEPARD: Yes. I definitely think so.
CONAN: Let's see. We get some listeners in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. And we'll begin with Phil, Phil on the line with us from Jackson in Ohio.
PHIL (Caller): Yes, I'm here. I just didn't know if you had any comments about on the other shows on NPR. One time I had called Car Talk and you get a recording and then they call you back. But I'd asked about gasoline at a price when the gases were $4 a gallon and, you know, I kind of just said, talk to us about it and kind of indicated I was against ethanol and wondered what their opinion about ethanol was. And they didn't call back, which I could understand because I'm sure they get hundreds or thousands of calls. But, a couple of weeks later, I heard that one of their sponsors, and I don't know the exact name but it was something like the Ethanol Association of America. And I wondered if that would prevent them from saying anything bad about ethanol.
CONAN: Well, they are - we should point out quickly. The Car Talk is not a production of NPR News. It's another division of the company, and well, why don't you talk about this firewall concept?
SHEPARD: Yeah. This way - this is a great time to bring this up. And there is a firewall. It is a metaphorical firewall that exists between the news side of a news organization and the advertising or underwriting side of the revenue-producing side. And I realize that everyone in the news business is very comfortable with this, which means that reporters go about their business, they're not reading the paper or listening to funding credits and thinking, gee I ought to do a story on the ethanol because there is a credit, and we need to make them want to come back.
I mean, that just doesn't happen, but gee, it is a big leap of faith to ask listeners who don't live and breath the news business as I do and Neal does and others to believe that this funding credit really - I mean I'm sorry that this firewall really, really does exist. And so, if they get a credit for ethanol that's because they've met the NPR guidelines for underwriting, which I do have on my website npr.org/ombudsman, and the current column up there about E-Verify has the credit guidelines of anyone who's interested in looking at them.
CONAN: We should also point out, we play underwriting announcements on Talk of the Nation everyday. I don't know what they are. We get a list that we're supposed to plug in everyday, and our director here plugs in the code numbers, and I think, theoretically, we could find out what they are. But the fact of the matter is we don't know.
SHEPARD: Right, and...
PHIL: Thanks an awful lot.
CONAN: OK. Thanks for the call, Phil
CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to Kevin, and Kevin is with us from Bucks County in Pennsylvania.
KEVIN (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi there.
KEVIN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. It's been a concern of mine, and it's a problem that I am no longer contributing to your fund drives because of your advertising for the Anheuser-Busch Company, knowing its direct connection to the family and society, and the destruction to the American way of life, this alcohol, this blood of Christ, this Jesus' juice, I think Michael Jackson called it.
SHEPARD: Kevin, would you not buy a newspaper for the same reason if they had the advertising?
KEVIN: Yeah. I would never buy a newspaper for the exact same reason.
SHEPARD: OK. Well, you understand that...
KEVIN: And I will no longer continue to contribute to the radio station as long as they advertise so flagrantly and blatantly about Anheuser-Busch, yeah America's number one red, white, and blue-selling beer.
CONAN: We also got a lot of complaints in the previous years over underwriting announcements for Wal-Mart. The people felt - objected about this and that company's policy.
KEVIN: Wal-Mart has a direct connection to - runs in the family, to the auto accidents, to the deaths of so many who don't even drink themselves. You know alcohol is a direct connection to much destruction in our country, and everyone knows it. You got to be blind not to see the daily reports of police officers being run over by drunken drivers. I mean, how many children and families need to be affected by alcohol before people start (unintelligible) again and realizing there's another way to make your money. I mean, you're not advertising crack dealers, are you? No, no. But, even though alcohol kills more people than all illegal drugs put together, you will continue to advertise for Anheuser-Busch? It's so sad that your radio station has chosen to take their money.
CONAN: Kevin, thank you.
SHEPARD: Thank you. It's interesting that he did bring up alcohol, because there used to be more of a prohibition against alcohol.
CONAN: Used to be a strict prohibition against alcohol advertising and underwriting on radio and television.
SHEPARD: Right. And so there is against cigarettes. But NPR decided that, and along with other guidelines in the industry and the FCC, they get together and determine what the guidelines will be that it is OK to name a product, say Grey Goose Vodka which was a previous funder, but not to extol anything about its virtues. But that does not really speak to Kevin's just personal disagreement with alcohol and understandably so.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard. And you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And here's an email from Paula in Tucson, Arizona. Why in a world is Homeland Security or any government agency giving money, taxpayer money, to somebody for advertising? I guess it's a question for Homeland Security.
SHEPARD: Yeah. I think so and, you know, let's face it, it would be great if NPR could be totally funded by listeners and then this would not even be an issue, and it would truly be run by the public. But it is still a corporation that well, it's a non-profit corporation, it still has people who work here in a budget and salaries, and so it is necessary that they take corporate underwriting. And there is more corporate underwriting than there is foundation underwriting.
CONAN: Let's get Patrick on the line, Patrick from Beloit, Wisconsin.
PATRICK (Caller): Yes. Thanks for taking my call. Maybe I'm just misinformed about where the funding for public radio comes from. You listed the - on air, the on-air credits and then corporations. But is there not a taxpayer money as well that goes to it otherwise, and I will take my other comments off the air.
CONAN: OK, Patrick. Thank you.
SHEPARD: Thanks, Patrick. It is fascinating. I think people believe that NPR personally gets a lot of money from the federal government. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting gives out money to the individual public radio stations around the country. And NPR gets about one or two percent of its budget from grants from - but, the money actually goes to the public radio stations, who use it to upgrade equipment, to improve distribution systems, or to purchase NPR programming.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get Jack, Jack is on the line from Hood River in Oregon.
JACK (Caller): Hi, following on the last comment. I don't think the public is aware of all this moralism aside, how much federal funding has dropped for public radio stations and by inference, NPR. I associate with a local public station that does jazz, a non-profit. And part of the problem here, I think, is that the public doesn't realize that under this administration and particularly the policies that FCC has put forth, there has been a tremendous drop in the amount of public funding that's available to people like NPR and public television. And I just don't think the public is aware of the tremendous need in the time of economic need. Individuals aren't going be able to give, the government is, but they are not. So, I'll take the answer off the air.
CONAN: OK, Jack. Thank you.
SHEPARD: Well, I would - I don't really have a specific answer except that I'm sure all the public radio stations out there are happy to have you say that, Jack.
CONAN: Let's get to one last caller. Grant, Grant with us from Sacramento in California.
GRANT (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I - although I have a particular concern about guns and weapons of mass destruction, and companies who make them much the same passion as this fellow who spoke about alcohol, I was wondering if in general NPR does have or could this policy in which those of us who do contribute to public radio, in some form, could at least indicate our general moral ethics around which you could respond to, so that there is non-discrimination further that takes the listeners' views into account.
SHEPARD: Well, you donate - when you donate money, you do not donate directly to National Public Radio, you do it through your local station. And so you could do it that way or you could contact the ombudsman at npr.org and then they contact us. And I definitely - my job is to be an advocate or a representative for the public. So, when I get, as I did in this case, would E-Verify credits a number of emails indicating that people are not - that some people are not happy with this credit. I'd make sure that they know about that.
CONAN: Have there been examples where NPR pulled funding credits?
SHEPARD: Ah, there was one example which was the government of Kuwait. And interestingly that was - because the government of Kuwait wanted to mark the 10th anniversary of the Liberation of Kuwait from Iraq by U.S. forces. Right now there is a policy, as I understand it, to not take money from a foreign government unless it has to do with tourism or economic development.
CONAN: OK. Grant, thanks very much for the call.
GRANT: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Alicia Shepard is NPR's Ombudsman, the public representative to NPR. You can read her latest column at npr.org/ombudsman where this conversation will continue in just a couple of minutes. Alicia Shepard will fill your questions in a live chat in just a couple of minutes. That's at npr.org/ombudsman for even more funding credit controversies, you can head over to our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Alicia, thanks very much for being with you.
SHEPARD: Thank you.
CONAN: Tomorrow its Science Friday, and Ira Flatow will be here. I'll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend everybody. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan in Washington.