WASHINGTON (AP) — National Public Radio should consider avoiding grants such as one the Ploughshares Fund provided for coverage of the Iran nuclear agreement and related issues, the radio network's ombudsman said. The White House recently identified Ploughshares as a group that helped sell the multinational deal to a skeptical public.
The ombudsman's report was published on NPR's website last week, following an Associated Press story about a $100,000 grant Ploughshares gave the network last year. The money supported "national security reporting that emphasizes the themes of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and budgets, Iran's nuclear program, international nuclear security topics and U.S. policy toward nuclear security," according to Ploughshares' 2015 annual report.
Ploughshares also funded reporters and partnerships with other news outlets, according to its website. That raised questions about journalistic independence after Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, described how the White House set up an "echo chamber" of organizations, experts and even friendly reporters to advocate for the deal that curtailed Iran's nuclear activity and U.S.-led economic sanctions on Tehran. Rhodes credited Ploughshares for its help in a New York Times magazine profile about him.
NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen said no coverage was skewed.
"NPR did not accept money to report favorably on the Iran deal. There was no pay for play," she wrote on May 27.
But Jensen said breakdowns in procedures created a perception problem.
She pointed to a March 2015 story on a nuclear conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, part of the Ploughshares-led coalition backing nuclear diplomacy with Iran. The piece, which did not disclose NPR's relationship with Ploughshares, quoted two other experts whose organizations "received funding from Ploughshares to advocate for the deal or were working in that coalition." Ploughshares' president, Joseph Cirincione, also was interviewed.
NPR is reviewing its disclosure safeguards, Jensen's report said, but she suggested further action. Whereas Gates Foundation money funds an NPR education blog and the MacArthur Foundation supports international and investigative reporting, she called Ploughshares' grant different.
"In this case, NPR's money came from one side of a very partisan debate on a specific issue to fund reporting on a specific topic. And the money was not from a sponsor who in exchange would get on-air credit; in this case the sponsor money was going directly to support the reporting," Jensen wrote.
"In the case of grants such as the one from Ploughshares, which are intended to fund reporting on specific, highly controversial issues, my suggestion is that NPR consider not accepting them in the future if they contain such specific language."
Ploughshares started supporting NPR in 1984. It has done so regularly since 2005. Ploughshares annual reports show $700,000 in grants to NPR over the last decade.
Jensen examined 254 on-air newsmagazine stories about the Iran deal since 2015. Almost half were "neutral," about the negotiations or the agreement's later implementation. The other stories featured 160 people speaking in favor of the accord and 102 against. NPR spoke twice each to Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a leading opponent, and many congressional critics.
One such critic, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said he repeatedly asked NPR to be interviewed about the Iran deal last year, but to no avail. The network initially said it had no record of Pompeo's requests. It later said it canceled a scheduled August interview with Pompeo.
Jensen's report said NPR canceled because it had too many other interviews booked. Later that week, NPR interviewed Sen. Chuck Schumer, the most prominent Democratic lawmaker to oppose the deal.
"That was by far the more important story, since the vast majority of Democrats supported the president in voting for the deal," Jensen said.
Outside groups of all stripes are increasingly giving money to news organizations for special projects or general news coverage. Most news organizations, including the AP, have strict rules governing whom they can accept money from and how to protect journalistic independence. The AP has taken grants from nonpolitical groups and journalism foundations such as the Knight Foundation.