All Things Considered, Again

In the first part of this series, I discussed the sponsorship by the state government agency MNsure of the news programming of Minnesota Public Radio.  In this post, I discuss some of the troubling aspects of this business relationship.

Minnesota Public Radio is a private, non-profit corporation, organized as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.  Its parent company, the St. Paul-based American Public Media Group, is also organized as a 501(c)(3).

 

American Public Media owns companies across the country, from South Florida, to Southern California, the Rocky Mountains, and across the Midwest.  According to its most recent Federal tax return, American Public Media Group had annual revenue[1] of $18,655,077, earning[2] a respectable profit of $339,897.

Last year, its current CEO, Jon McTaggart, was paid[3] $494,497.  Its outgoing CEO, William Kling, was paid[4] $541,183.  American Public Media owns three, for-profit[5] companies.

For its part, Minnesota Public Radio had revenue[6] of $76,844,240 during that same period.  In short, the Minnesota Public Radio empire is a well-funded, profitable private enterprise that generates significant personal wealth for its senior employees.  Whatever justification for taxpayer funding that existed in 1967 is surely no longer present.

Therefore, one objection to MNsure’s cash sponsorship of MPR News is a general objection to taxpayer funding of public radio.  MPR is not a government agency, it’s a private charity, like Planned Parenthood or the National Rifle Association.  Taxpayer-funded government grants to private charities represent forced charitable giving from the taxpayer perspective.  If the taxpayer disagrees with the mission or ideology of the charity, she has no choice whether to give.  That decision is compelled by government—in this case, the Minnesota state legislature.

If you believe in the mission of public radio, great!  Write them a check out of your own checking account.  If you want me to donate to public radio, great!  Convince me they are worthy of my direct donation.  Don’t force me to donate to your cause through my tax payments.

MNsure is a government agency redirecting your tax money to a private charity.  MPR gets millions of dollars of state money each year through the Legacy Amendment fund.  In this instance, MNsure’s management is making a unilateral decision to direct even more state money to public radio. 

MNsure—where the agency’s conference rooms are reportedly named after Democrat politicians (Atkins, Dayton, and Lourey)—must rank as one of the most ideological agencies in state government.  As I documented earlier [1, 2, and 3], rewarding liberal friends with taxpayer cash seems to be as important to MNsure as insuring the uninsured.

What MNsure is buying with its sponsorship is more coverage of their favorite issue: health care.  Every day, there are almost infinite numbers of subjects that could be tackled by MPR news.  Sponsorships such as MNsure’s steer coverage toward issues of importance to the sponsor.

Last year, my friend Tom Steward wrote about a similar set of grants around a different subject matter,

Another prominent Minnesota media outlet, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), accepted a $3 million grant in 2008 for its American Public Media unit to cover “sustainability issues.”  The grant was issued by the Kendeda Fund… 

MPR also received $2.1 million from Kendeda in 2005 for coverage of sustainability issues.  The American Public Media programs supported by the Kendeda funding are heard statewide on Minnesota Public Radio stations.

“Kendeda Fund supports Global Sustainability News Coverage and Programming” at American Public Media’s Marketplace, a suite of public radio business programs produced in Los Angeles,” said Bill Gray, MPR corporate spokesman.  “Specific to your interest, this support to Marketplace has no impact on Minnesota environmental and energy policy, nor does it have any impact on Minnesota Public Radio or its programming.”

No impact, except that “sustainability” will receive additional coverage and other topics—like the economy—will receive less attention as there are a limited number of hours in the broadcast day. 

When MPR accepts sponsorships of a subject matter, other issues are necessarily shoved aside to make more room.

Last week was a prime example.  MPR’s The Daily Circuit, devoted a week of programming to the subject of health care. 

On Wednesday, MPR news hosted MNsure’s executive director for a live, hour-long infomercial.  Later that morning MPR hosted political charity TakeAction, to “debunk” Obamacare myths.  TakeAction has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars electing Democrats to state office and lobbied heavily for MNsure’s creation.

On Friday, MPR hosted an hour-long roundtable, which included a woman who serves as both Gov. Dayton’s Human Services Commissioner and a board member of MNsure.  Also on the panel was a woman who is a nurse and former Democrat state legislator.  She was never identified by party, on air.

Missing from the week of health programming was any voice that disagrees with MNsure’s top-down, government-controlled solution.  Also largely missing from MPR news was much in the way of critical reporting of MNsure, in a week filled with scandals around a massive data security breach, dodgy grantees, and snubbed community groups that were heavily covered by other local media.

Defenders of MPR on Twitter suggested that the situation was no different from accepting advertising from, say, health insurance giant United Healthcare.  I would point out several differences. 

First, as a private corporation, MPR is free to contract with any private person (natural or corporate) in any manner they choose.  MPR is free to put any viewpoint they want on their airwaves.  There is not—and there should not be—any requirement for “equal time” or some other enforced viewpoint “balance.”

But if MPR were to interview United’s CEO on the air, they owe it to their listeners to mention the commercial relationship.  I have heard similar interviews on for-profit radio—the sponsorship is mentioned, usually trumpeted, along the lines of “our sponsor cares so much about this program, she showed up in person!”

But in the case of government sponsorships, it is even more vital that these commercial relationships be acknowledged and partisan political labels clearly identified.  The knock on public radio—that it’s state-controlled media—is reinforced when public radio serves as paid shills for government agencies and political party policies.

In the end, the choice is MPR’s.  They can continue business as usual, but at the risk that any perception of fairness and impartiality is being lost.

[1] See American Public Media Group’s IRS Form 990 Income Tax Return for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012. Part 1, Line 12.

[2] Ibid., Part 1, Line 19.
[3] Ibid., Schedule 3, Part 2(a), Line 3.
[4] Ibid., Schedule 3, Part 2(a), Line 6.
[5] Ibid., Schedule R. Part IV.

[6] See Minnesota Public Radio’s IRS Form 990 Income Tax Return for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012. Part 1, Line 12.

Cross-posted and comments welcome at Bill Glahn.