Media Beat, May 25, 1994
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Who's Heard, and Who Isn't, on Public Radio?

This is a column about who gets to speak - and who doesn't- on our country's "public" airwaves.

With the health reform debate heating up, you might think National Public Radio is a good place to hear analysts offering a wide variety of views. After all, NPR is not sponsored by insurance firms, drug companies or other special interests with a direct stake in the debate.

What NPR doesn't tell you is that both of its congressional pundits on "Morning Edition" - former Democratic Rep. Tom Downey and former Republican Rep. Vin Weber - are paid political operatives for private health interests.

Downey and Weber are supposed to offer contrasting views. But on health care, they're both paid by the same side - the side that wants to prevent serious reform.

Downey is a lobbyist for Metropolitan Life Insurance, and the U.S. Healthcare Inc. health maintenance organization, and a division of Merck pharmaceuticals. Big insurers and HMOs will benefit from "managed competition" proposals - like those of President Bill Clinton or Rep. Jim Cooper - that keep health care in the hands of a shrinking number of giant corporations.

Weber is a political consultant for the United Healthcare HMO - as well as the Alliance for Managed Competition, a powerful coalition of the "Big Five" health insurance companies that includes Metropolitan Life.

Met Life executives never have to worry that a Downey-Weber "debate" on health care will question why huge firms like theirs take precedence in Washington over the public. In a sense, both "debaters" are on their payroll.

And there's no need to worry that either of NPR's congressional analysts will speak kindly of the "single-payer" proposal, which would eliminate private insurance firms (along with much waste and profiteering) from health care.

For many months, "Morning Edition" simply introduced Downey and Weber as "former congressmen." These days, they're also identified as "lobbyists." But who they lobby for remains hidden from listeners.

Asked why the clients of Downey and Weber are not identified on the air, "Morning Edition" senior editor Ellen McDonnell responded: "Do you think our audience is so naive that they think people trained in a specific line of work are now out there making pizza?"

These two NPR analysts are hardly alone as pundit-lobbyists. Televised pundits like CNN's John Sununu and CBS's Bob Beckel work for various corporate clients - although that's not acknowledged to viewers.

If you've ever wondered why national pundit programs do such an abysmal job of examining corporate influence on politics, one factor is that many pundits themselves are on the gravy train. Another factor is that large companies sponsor the broadcasts.

In theory at least, National "Public" Radio is not dominated by corporate sponsors and should be free to look beyond the Downeys and Webers and other insiders for independent commentators and analysts.

Yet a four-month study in 1991 conducted by FAIR (the media watch group we're associated with) showed no more diversity among NPR's experts than on the commercial networks. Of 27 commentators featured at least twice on "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered," for example, only one was not white and only four were female.

A couple of weeks ago, "All Things Considered" was set to make a bold departure from all the usual suspects. Death Row inmate and black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal was to begin a series of commentaries about crime and prison life.

From 1979 to 1981, Abu-Jamal was a respected radio journalist in Philadelphia at an NPR affiliate and commercial stations. But his life took an abrupt turn in December 1981 after an altercation with a policeman left the officer dead; Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death as a murderer.

In the dozen years since, an international movement has formed - including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund - seeking a new trial for Abu-Jamal.

In his recorded commentaries for NPR, however, Abu-Jamal was not discussing his own case. He was to offer listeners a feeling for life behind bars from his unique perch; not many experienced broadcasters sit on death row.

But the day before this experiment in radio commentary was to begin, NPR's top management folded - under pressure from police organizations - and canceled the series. (A much smaller network, Pacifica Radio, is now planning to air his commentaries.)

Why such fear over some commentaries from death row? The real threat to society is that - instead of authentic debate on our country's pressing problems - we're bombarded by a narrow range of pundits representing private interests that aren't even identified.

[Epilogue: A month later, NPR commentators Downey and Weber became bipartisan co-chairs of a coalition of business groups promoting GATT and the World Trade Organization.]

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