Did $100K grant to NPR help sell Iran nukes deal?

Underwriting grants to public media has always been a thorny, ethical issue.

When you hear, for example, “Coverage of [fill in name of subject here] is provided by [fill in benefactor here]”, a listener is not wrong to ask : “Which came first: The story I’m listening to or the money that funded the reporting of the story?”

Grants to public media often fund positions in newsrooms, and “beats” are created by those positions. Ideally, those beats — subject areas with specialized reporting — would exist regardless of whether a foundation provided the money for them. The editorial heft of the subject matter would dictate it.

The questions become more relevant today following a New York Times Magazine report that foundation money helped “sell” President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal on NPR.

The Ploughshares Fund gave NPR $100,000 last year. Its mission is to”build a safe, secure world by developing and investing in initiatives to reduce and ultimately eliminate the world’s nuclear stockpiles.”

NPR told the Times the money came with no strings attached, insisting that an editorial firewall prevented the fund from influencing the coverage of the White House deal, which has been heavily criticized by Republicans.

But this quote from one of President Obama’s foreign policy aides is troubling, nonetheless.

“We created an echo chamber,” said Ben Rhodes, saying that “outside groups like Ploughshares” helped carry out the administration’s message effectively, the Times reported.

The Associated Press says the magazine article is reviving the Republican criticism of the deal.

Outside groups of all stripes are increasingly giving money to news organizations for special projects or general news coverage. Most news organizations, including The Associated Press, have strict rules governing whom they can accept money from and how to protect journalistic independence.

Ploughshares’ backing is more unusual, given its prominent role in the rancorous, partisan debate over the Iran deal.

The Ploughshares grant to NPR 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, recently published online.

“It is common practice for foundations to fund media coverage of underreported stories,” Ploughshares spokeswoman Jennifer Abrahamson said. Funding “does not influence the editorial content of their coverage in any way, nor would we want it to.”

Ploughshares has funded NPR’s coverage of national security since 2005, the radio network said. Ploughshares reports show at least $700,000 in funding over that time. All grant descriptions since 2010 specifically mention Iran.

U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., said he asked NPR to put him on the air to counter pro-deal comments of a Democrat, but he said NPR refused. NPR told the Associated Press it has no record of any such requests.

Where additional ethical questions surface is when the president of Ploughshares was put on the air — twice — to speak about the negotiations.

Even with a “firewall,” that’s a really bad editorial decision, if only on the basis that it could be perceived to have been bought-and-paid-for news. Any news organization, especially NPR, has perception as the entire underpinning of its ethical policies.

NPR wasn’t the only beneficiary of the Ploughshares effort, the Associated Press said:

Ploughshares boasts of helping to secure the deal. While success was “driven by the fearless leadership of the Obama administration and supporters in Congress,” board chairwoman Mary Lloyd Estrin wrote in the annual report, “less known is the absolutely critical role that civil society played in tipping the scales towards this extraordinary policy victory.”

The 33-page document lists the groups that Ploughshares funded last year to advance its nonproliferation agenda.

The Arms Control Association got $282,500; the Brookings Institution, $225,000; and the Atlantic Council, $182,500. They received money for Iran-related analysis, briefings and media outreach, and non-Iran nuclear work.

Other groups, less directly defined by their independent nuclear expertise, also secured grants.

J-Street, the liberal Jewish political action group, received $576,500 to advocate for the deal. More than $281,000 went to the National Iranian American Council.

Princeton University got $70,000 to support former Iranian ambassador and nuclear spokesman Seyed Hossein Mousavian’s “analysis, publications and policymaker engagement on the range of elements involved with the negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear program.”

NPR may well be correct about its editorial firewall. But it won’t matter.

Those not likely to believe a firewall exists between a newsroom and a politically-focused non-profit are going to believe the Iran nuke deal was sold to the public with the complicity of the NPR newsroom. Whether it was or not doesn’t matter. In journalism ethics, perception is reality.