When 'Public' Radio Is Used for Private Gain, and 'Public' Radio Withholds Information

Public broadcasting is often a sacred cow in the media. Reporters don't often dig skeptically to find self-dealing inside the walls of PBS or NPR stations. But kudos should go to Paul Farhi and The Washington Post for offering such a story on Tuesday.

NPR listeners in the Washington metropolitan area get their news programs on WAMU-FM, based at American University. One of its regular features is called Capitol News Connection, which offers little newscasts within WAMU's regular NPR news shows. Farhi found a conflict-of-interest case, and notice how the adjective “public” can fall away from public radio:

As it happens, the founder and chief executive of CNC's parent company is also the wife of the WAMU executive charged with determining which programs the station airs.

WAMU officials say they see no problem with the admittedly unusual arrangement, which isn't mentioned in any of WAMU's public filings or press material about the program. The station executive, Mark McDonald, has recused himself from any dealings about Capitol News Connection, according to WAMU.

But the ties between the station and CNC suggest at least the appearance of a conflict. WAMU, after all, buys such CNC programs as the congressional news show "Power Breakfast" and "This Week in Congress" with funds raised through listener donations and other contributions. In this case, the station is purchasing programs from a company operated by McDonald's wife, Melinda Wittstock, thus benefiting McDonald in the process.

CNC, in turn, benefits from its presence on WAMU's schedule. As one of the most popular stations in the Washington area and one of the largest public radio stations in the country, WAMU's contract represents a powerful calling card for CNC, as the service markets its programs to other public stations around the country. CNC's Web site even includes a promotional quote from Jim Asendio, WAMU's news director and McDonald's underling, calling it "irreplaceable and unmatched."

These machinations for private gain are exactly what WAMU listeners will not hear about during pledge drives, and they won't hear about them in the membership newsletter:

WAMU spokeswoman Kay Summers said the station has been aware of the potential for "the appearance of impropriety" from the time it started purchasing CNC programming in 2007 and thus set up a "firewall" between McDonald and CNC. Although the station hasn't publicly disclosed the McDonald-Wittstock relationship, Summers said, "we always disclose it, if asked. It's not a secret."

Would an NPR reporter buy that line from a target of their reporting? We don't volunteer certain information, but it's not a secret, because we disclose it when anyone snoops around long enough to ask?

Farhi also found that McDonald has a second conflict of interest, a moonlighting business as a media coach, called Pundit Media Consulting. Once again, Farhi found McDonald blurring that business and WAMU business, which other station executives weren't informed about:

Among the online testimonials is one from Brooks Rainwater, the director of local relations for the American Institute of Architects, a Washington-based organization. "Mark worked with me as a media coach, and as a result of his instruction, my confidence has increased when I speak to the media and give presentations to groups," Rainwater says on the site. "Mark's media background offered a unique insight and understanding."

Rainwater apparently has appeared twice on WAMU, offering commentaries that promote AIA initiatives. On Aug. 27, for example, he offered a two-minute piece advocating environmentally friendly schools. "We can design schools that prepare students for a more successful future," he said. "At the American Institute of Architects, we believe in the power of design and are approaching sustainability with a solution-based approach." Rainwater didn't mention that such retrofitting would probably be a boon to members of his organization.

He was described on the air as "a commentator." His status as a former client of the station's program director was not disclosed.

Wouldn't it be interesting for an NPR station to offer fairness and balance by letting critics come on for five minutes during a pledge drive and tell listeners why they should NOT contribute to the station? A critic could read the Farhi story on the air, and tell WAMU members they should stop donating until this kind of self-dealing is stopped in the nation's capital.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis