By Nikki Usher
Reprinted with permission from Neiman Lab, Neiman Foundation, Harvard University
With higher education at the crossroads of the culture war, public media is vulnerable to growing political interference over its operations.
For many who are concerned about declines in local news, shoring up the existing journalism infrastructure for public media in communities seems like a no-duh solution.
But it is important to approach, eyes-wide-open, any solution for journalism that involves government, public money, or public institutions.
The political fight over public media is often framed in terms of government spending (Mitt Romney threatened to all-but-cancel Big Bird in 2012), even though direct government subsidies are tiny — 2023 estimates put federal funding at just $1.40 per capita, compared to $100 or more in the UK, Norway, and Sweden.
But government funding is not the only way that political meddling can impact the editorial independence of public media.
About two-thirds of NPR’s 1,000-plus stations (https://www.npr.org/about-npr/178640915/npr-stations-and-public-media) are licensed to or affiliated with colleges or universities. With higher education at the crossroads of the culture wars, public media is vulnerable to growing political interference over its operations.
As foundation funding and member drives pour money into the cause, strengthening the walls to protect editorial independence at member stations is perhaps more important than any reporting resource.
Even if a university is not providing direct financial support to a station’s operating budget, it may provide in-kind support such as buildings and facilities. At public colleges and universities, journalists may be considered state employees.
As local newspapers dry up, public media will become even more important to communities looking for local news and information. We’re already seeing the signs: In February, 2021 NPR announced its Stations Investigations Team providing resources and reporting heft to member stations across the country, and ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network includes public radio stations.
While the stations see themselves as editorially independent from the schools they are affiliated with, there are early warning signs that the co-mingling of university resources with public media operations leaves them vulnerable to meddling — from right-wing political pressure to universities attempting to squelch unfavorable stories. Even previously good relationships with university partners might sour as the scope of what public media covers continues to grow.
Given how much conservatives have bemoaned the so-called liberal influence on public media — Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump have threatened to defund public broadcasting—it’s unsurprising to see this play out on a more local level.
Consider recent history at UNC’s North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC). In September, UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees appointed two new board members to North Carolina Public Radio. While the rationale for the selections was not publicly discussed the new appointees raise concerns about potential conservative pressure on the station.
In 2015, UNC Chapel Hill trustees created a separate governing board for WUNC, with the stated intention of serving as an oversight board focused on the station’s business operations. Even though WUNC is both financially and editorially independent from the university, the university’s influence is not so removed — the Board of Trustees owns its FCC license.
New member Allie Ray McCullen is the longest serving current trustee on the University’s Board of Trustees and voted against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case. He has also been outspoken about his support for the Confederate monument on campus known as Silent Sam and referred to student protesters as “criminals” and “entitled wimps.”
The other new member, John Hood, is the president of the John William Pope Foundation, (a conservative foundation that has donated millions of dollars to UNC. His politics and policy newspaper columns are syndicated across the state. In a 2006 column, “Public, not government, radio,” he wrote that, while he is a supporter of public radio, it shouldn’t receive government support:
If only it did not subsist partly on funds forcibly taken from people who do not listen to public radio and never will.
It is true that the taxpayer subsidy for stations such as WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill and WFAE-FM in Charlotte is less egregious than it used to be. The state budget no longer includes direct appropriations to university-based public radio operations. But they continue to receive subsidy in the form of grants from the taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The extent of subsidy varies widely according to the size and penetration of local markets. For example, WUNC pays for more than 90 percent of its annual operating budget with voluntary contributions, be they checks from individuals and institutions or underwriting contracts (essentially, short-form advertising) with businesses. But at other stations, the percentage of expenses paid by forcible expropriation is much higher.
It should be zero. It should be zero in the Triangle or Charlotte markets, where an end to government funding would almost certainly result in higher private funding to offset the loss (I’d be among the first donors). And it should be zero even in smaller markets, where philanthropy and entrepreneurial thinking should be harnessed to generate the necessary funds.
(Hood did not respond to a request for comment; we’ll update this post if we get one.)
Faculty, staff, and students at UNC are already concerned about political interference in campus decisions. These WUNC board appointments could be another reason to worry.
Public media’s editorial independence is a vulnerability that exists in red states and blue states alike. Journalists at NPR Illinois found themselves subject to a different sort of soft censorship when reporting out University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s spotty history of penalizing faculty for sexual misconduct.
NPR Illinois isn’t even the NPR member station on campus — it’s run out of the University of Illinois-Springfield. Still, the University of Illinois Springfield maintained journalists were “responsible employees,” according to its Title IX sexual misconduct policy, because they were University of Illinois system employees. This would mean journalists would have to name their sources and share information with the university.
Despite a shield law in Illinois (https://www.rcfp.org/privilege-compendium/illinois/#a-shield-law-statute) that protects journalists from revealing confidential sources, the University of Illinois System’s Board of Trustees refused to grant journalists an exemption from the Title IX policy. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press went to bat for journalists, noting the move “undermine[d] both freedom of the press and campus safety.”
The reporting could have ended there, but NPR Illinois was partnering with ProPublica, and ProPublica was able to promise confidentiality to anyone who came forward. ProPublica could resist the university’s rules and regulations, but NPR Illinois was still subject to them.
In commercial news media, the line between editorial independence and business profit is often discussed as a wall between church and state — one highly imperfect but with predictable, profit-driven conflicts of interest.
If public media is to be part of the solution for helping to bolster the availability of local journalism at a time when the ad-supported model for local newspapers has all but imploded, there needs to be a stronger wall between who holds the license and who runs the newsroom.
Right now, we can act before we become overly reliant on public media filling the gaps. Shield laws exist to protect journalists from naming their sources in almost all states, but it’s not clear that journalists working for public media understand how to leverage them — and an unsupportive board won’t help them.
University faculty can take important steps by anticipating any carve-outs in university policy that might undermine reporting efforts, like the Title IX example at Illinois. Public media supporters can make sure that they push state legislators to affirm the editorial independence of local public media.
Professor Usher currently teaches at the University of San Diego’s Communication Studies department. When this 2021 article was published, she was an associate professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and a senior fellow at the Open Markets Institute’s Center for Journalism and Liberty. She is the author of News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, and previously wrote for Nieman Lab about metro newspapers and white audiences.