Pro-life spat takes NPR station to ethics board
The National Public Radio station in Seattle is going before an ethics board Saturday after a pro-life media group filed a complaint accusing the station of airing a slanted story.
The Washington News Council Board of Directors is holding a hearing over a story aired by KUOW-FM in April 2011 on a controversy surrounding billboards advertising pro-life pregnancy options. The billboards were placed in the Seattle area by the Vitae Foundation, a pro-life media group, on behalf of Care Net.
“We look forward to finally being able to air our side of the story in a public format, something we have wanted from the day KUOW ran its misleading and biased story about Vitae last April,” said Vitae President Carl Landwehr in a statement.
The story, “Controversy surrounding limited service pregnancy centers” by then-intern Meghan Walker, airs comments by a Planned Parenthood representative who chides Vitae for being insufficiently transparent about its agenda in its advertising and on its website. At the time, Planned Parenthood was pushing for a state bill that would require limited-service pregnancy centers to be more explicit about their pro-life tilt.
The station did not attempt to contact the Vitae Foundation and later said that Care Net did not respond to a request for comment. Vitae Foundation officials were outraged, comparing the story to “a Planned Parenthood editorial about Vitae’s message — which is in direct competition with Planned Parenthood’s,” said Mr. Landwehr.
In other states, the best Vitae could do at that point would be to fire off a sternly worded letter to the editor, but Washington is different. The state is home to the nation’s last remaining news council, an independent journalism organization that mediates conflicts and promotes ethical reporting.
The three-hour hearing, which is slated to take place at the University of Washington, has no legal force, but it will have an impressive lineup. Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander will preside over the meeting, and the hearings board includes Bill Gates Sr., father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The hearing, which comes after several attempts to mediate the issue, is only the fifth in the council’s 14-year history. The station is under no legal obligation to attend the hearing, and the big question for John Hamer, the council president, is whether someone from KUOWFM will show up.
“We tried to mediate this one, but it didn’t fly,” said Mr. Hamer. “[The radio station] really didn’t meet them halfway.”
Guy Nelson, KUOW-FM program director, argues that the station met all the conditions of a compromise resolution reached in August. The station did conduct an interview with a Vitae official, which did not air, but a transcript of which was posted on the KUOW-FM website. He said the station also met the second condition, which was to “seriously consider doing an on-air story at the same time, comparable in length to the original story.”
Even though the station has yet to run another on-air story on the issue, Mr. Nelson said they did seriously consider it.
“They said, ‘You need to seriously consider it,’ and now it’s like, ‘When are you going to do it?’ “Mr. Nelson said. “Well, I said I’d seriously consider it. The issue died in the legislature in 2011, so that’s what I’m waiting on, I’m waiting on a news angle.”
He also pointed out that the interview with Vitae Foundation representative Debbie Stokes was more extensive than the comments aired by the Planned Parenthood spokeswoman in the original story.
“At this point, we’re planning on attending the hearing, although things could change between now and then,” Mr. Nelson said. “Whatever the news council and Vitae want to do, they’ll do. I feel like the station has basically done everything they’ve asked us to do.”
Complicating the matter is that KUOW-FM is licensed by the University of Washington, which is a state school. That means all the station’s employees, including reporters and editors, are also state employees, even though, as the KUOW-FM website notes, more than 89 percent of its funding comes from individual and business support. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the university provide 9 percent.
Station officials insist that they operate without state influence. “I think they make a good case that they’re separate and independent,” said Mr. Hamer.