NPR Ignores Biased Coverage of Nuclear Deal, Truth About Pro-Iran Mouthpiece
The fallout from Ben Rhodes’ admission that he and his colleagues at the White House created an “echo chamber” to promote negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program continues. On May 27, Elizabeth Jensen, the ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR), issued her assessment of NPR’s coverage of the Iran deal.
Her commentary was issued in response to an AP report stating that Ploughshares, a non-profit group that served as a lynchpin for Rhodes’ echo chamber, donated $700,000 to NPR over the course of a decade in order to receive favorable coverage. Ploughshares touted NPR coverage as a factor in its effort to obtain public and Congressional support for Iran deal.
In her essay, Jensen reports that while NPR’s “money came from one side of a very partisan debate on a specific issue to fund reporting on a specific topic,” she does not think that the firewall between NPR’s donors and editorial decision making was breached. Nevertheless, she does admit “there is certainly an appearance that NPR opened itself up to be used as a propaganda organ of the administration via its reporting grant from Ploughshares.”
Despite Jensen’s assurance that NPR’s coverage of the Iran deal was above board, listeners can be forgiven if they remain a bit suspicious. Of the 254 stories about the Iran deal that Jensen’s office examined, 118 were categorized as “neutral.” In the remaining 136 stories, Jensen reports, “160 people were quoted speaking in favor of the deal and 102 were against it.” That’s a strong preponderance of sources in favor of the deal.
Jensen wrote that she was surprised as to the number of positive voices she found in NPR’s coverage, and that she was concerned about “the large number of Ploughshares-funded analysts who made it on the air to talk up the deal, without any acknowledgement of that by NPR.”
On this score, Jensen is onto something. Since he became president of Ploughshares in 2008, Joe Cirincione, who regularly smears opponents of the Iran deal as “neocons,” has been interviewed on NPR approximately 25 times. In many of these appearances, there was no mention of the fact that Ploughshares was underwriting NPR coverage of the issues Cirincione was speaking about.
Looking at the number of times Cirincione was interviewed on NPR since 2000 (about 65 appearances in total), it is clear that there is a pretty tight relationship between the head of Ploughshares and public radio, a relationship that was further cemented by the $700,000 that Ploughshares gave to the network.
Let’s put it this way. Prior to 2008, Cirincione was a friend of NPR. After 2008, he was a friend with benefits — real benefits to public radio. To assert that Cirincione and Ploughshares did not have an outsized impact on NPR’s coverage of the Iran deal beggars belief and common sense. Of course it affected NPR’s coverage.
If Ploughshares was not getting the coverage it wanted from NPR, it would have stopped funding the organization and invested its money in some other effort that gave it the results it wanted. That’s what it did in the past with Mother Jones and the Nation, according to this undated “Cultural Strategy” report published on Ploughshares’ website. They didn’t “generate the desired volume of coverage,” so Ploughshares pulled back its support.
But NPR did generate the coverage Ploughshares was looking for.
How do we know this? Ploughshares said so. After the Iran deal got through Congress, Ploughshares told its supporters how it got the job done; part of this story included sympathetic coverage of Ploughshares grantees on NPR. And by Jensen’s own admission, NPR gave substantial coverage to these grantees.
One of these grantees was the National Iranian-American Council, an organization founded by Trita Parsi, a Swedish-Iranian citizen who appeared on NPR a total of 23 times between 2005 and the end of 2015. Parsi’s organization received a total of $844,256 from Ploughsares between 2008 and 2015. Eighteen of Parsi’s 23 appearances took place in 2008, the year Ploughshares started supporting NIAC.
In his interviews on NPR, Parsi came across as a knowledgeable (if somewhat soft-spoken) critic of the Iranian government; yet his message was that despite its brutal human rights record, the regime was still a worthy negotiation partner on nukes.
His critics, many of them Iranian dissidents, have raised serious concerns about Parsi’s activism and lobbying on behalf of negotiations with Iran. At no point was this criticism included in NPR’s interviews with Parsi.
Parsi is not an American citizen, but is instead a citizen of both his native Iran and Sweden. His critics, such as Sohrab Ahmari, have raised the prospect that “Parsi and his group [NIAC] aren’t just pushing a dovish foreign-policy agenda, but rather are advocating for the Islamic Republic.”
Here a few facts are in order. Parsi first spoke about founding an organization like NIAC in 1999 at an event organized by the Islamic Republic of Iran. And during his work as President of NIAC, Parsi himself engaged in email correspondence with Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations on how to improve the prospects of a rapprochement with the United States.
These emails became public after NIAC sued one of its critics for defamation. The resulting court case — which NIAC lost — resulted in the release of a number of documents about the organization’s history and inner workings. A search of NPR’s website indicates that none of this controversy has been covered on the radio network’s news shows.
The evidence is pretty overwhelming that Ploughshares funded elements of the echo chamber that Ben Rhodes bragged about creating, and also gave NPR $700,000 to ensure Ploughshares grantees got the coverage to get their story out. It wasn’t an explicit pay-for-play deal, but Ploughshares got what it wanted — the amplification of its message through National Public Radio. And it didn’t properly cover, or ask questions of, Parisi and his group.
This is not a subject that NPR can continue to ignore. If NPR is serious about doing its job, it will cover Parsi and ask two obvious questions: Who is Trita Parsi and how did he become such an influential player in the effort to convince the United States to negotiate with Iran?