In the weeks since its flawed series on America’s disability benefit programs aired, NPR has been silent in the face of a huge flood of criticism and complaint, dismay and outrage, from diverse and respected sources (see my original piece to get caught up). Meanwhile, new information has emerged to show that reporter Chana Joffe-Walt’s sourcing was even more dramatically slanted - and NPR’s apparent ethical breaches even more severe - than anyone initially realized.
With no official response from This American Life’s Ira Glass, the hosts of All Things Considered, or the various omsbudsmen of NPR, PRI, and CPB, Joffe-Walt has continued to essentially whitewash her series’ errors and distortions, and she and her editors have yet to answer a single substantive criticism of what she aired. Joffe-Walt recently posted a cherry-picked online ‘summary’ of responses to her reporting, a selection which recycles many of her own sources (who naturally agree with themselves). But that’s hard to tell from her write-up, which does not identify these sources’ relationships, obscuring their far-right, pro-austerity affiliations and making them appear less marginal than they are. This is the same trick she performed in the original series, leaving most listeners unaware they were listening to repackaged talking points from think tanks with radical proposals to restructure the country’s disability benefits program.
But those same think tanks are much less silent about their role in this mess. Like, for example, Richard Burkhauser, who Joffe-Walt never names as a source (she does cite his writing partner Mary Daly, mentioning her authoritative-sounding connection the Federal Reserve, but not her link to the much-more-ideological American Enterprise Institute):
Burkhauser happily trumpeted his central role in the NPR series at an AEI-sponsored forum earlier this month, saying that Joffe-Walt’s reporting was a “point of view” piece - not a neutral one - and crowed, “Hallelujah!,” and “Thank god for NPR.”
(See Burkhauser exulting around 1:19:20 of the embedded video.)
According to someone in attendance, over lunch at the forum, Burkhauser went further, and claimed that NPR’s series actually originated when Joffe-Walt called him up, saying she wanted to base it on his book, “The Declining Work and Welfare of People With Disabilities,” published by none other than ... the American Enterprise Institute. The book pushes “fundamental changes in the way disability is insured and managed.” The forum was titled “Disability insurance: Inherent problems, practical solutions, and action for reform.” Inherent problems. This is a source with a definite agenda, and it's one that is highly contested.
In fact it’s more than contested, it’s a fringe view that lacks mainstream credibility. At the same forum, the current chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, Stephen Goss, opened his presentation by denouncing Burkhauser’s very premises as fundamentally and "obviously" wrong. His first slide:
These are also the flawed premises of Joffe-Walt’s reporting. Not only did she seemingly fail to do something as basic as discuss her story with officials at the Social Security Administration or a single disability advocate, she got her facts from the same incestuous group of right-wing academics, and she took pains to hide that from listeners.
Meanwhile, it’s now clear that Planet Money, Joffe-Walt’s program, has a new exclusive sponsor: Lincoln Financial Group. Among the things that Lincoln Financial sells: disability insurance! You know, the same private disability insurance that Joffe-Walt’s main sources advocate using to replace publicly-administered Social Security disability. (Literally the same: it even happens to be Lincoln Financial who provides disability insurance for employees of the American Enterprise Institute. It's a small world.)
Disability insurance is just a part of Lincoln Financial’s business, but they have a direct financial stake in the series’ subject and their funding should have been disclosed to listeners. Lincoln Financial is part of the Council for Disability Awareness, a business front group pushing to increase the profile of private disability insurance (check out their nifty online ‘dojo’-themed game!). Lincoln’s sponsorship began on March 18th, four days before the series aired, and is only committed through June 16th. Is this conspiracy thinking? An odd coincidence? Listeners should not have to play guessing games, or play private detective - as NPR's ethics rules make clear, on paper anyway.
The problem is that there’s no way to know whether Lincoln’s sponsorship came with any strings, or if there were other underwriters, like foundations or think tanks, who may have had input into sourcing or framing. No disclosures played on air, and despite direct requests, NPR has failed to disclose the funding for the series or its research. Did anyone help pay for that trip to Hale County, Alabama? A six-month story could have had some underwriting or grants behind it, right? The audience has no way to know without transparency.
These are not academic questions, or minor ones: they implicate core journalistic ethics. And they extend beyond the disability series. Private foundations are paying for more of our journalism, and they are not detached bestowers of charity - they describe their giving as "venture philanthropy," a version of venture capitalism wherein an "investment" is meant to bring about particular returns, often economic. This all raises a new set of ethical problems for journalists, as is becoming glaringly clear in the area of education reporting. As muckraking investigative reporter Yasha Levine wrote yesterday in an essay titled "Et tu, NPR?": Let’s go through that again: here we have a NPR program in which everything—the host, the interviewee and the subject being discussed—are all funded by the same pro-privatization outfits. And disclosures? Not a single one.
These apparent or real conflicts and breeches need to be redressed. Urgently. I donate to public radio and listen daily. But along with many people I know, my trust in the institution of NPR has been totally shaken. For it to return, we need these questions answered, stock to be taken of what went wrong, and the record to be finally and fully corrected. Otherwise that series NPR ran isn't journalism, it's just propaganda for those who've been trying for years to slash benefits that disabled people - disabled poor kids, at that - depend on for their lives.
Contact the NPR ombudsman * Contact the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman * Contact This American Life * Contact All Things Considered
About the author, and why I care: I had just enough direct experience with disability to know something was very wrong when I heard the "Trends with Benefits" episode of This American Life come on the radio in my kitchen a couple weeks ago. In law school, I helped with an SSI appeal for a woman who'd long been denied, and who struggled with the effects of extreme trauma, abuse and addiction. I handled my father's SSDI application after he suffered a sudden massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to work after thirty years of employment. And now in my job in a city council office, I see constituents who desperately need SSI for their families to survive given their or their children's poverty-compounded disabilities.