- John R. MacArthurpublisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy.
- Jeffrey DvorkinNational Public Radio’s first ombudsman.
- David Barsamianproducer of Alternative Radio, a weekly, independent, nationally syndicated public affairs program, and author of the forthcoming The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting.
- Edward Saidprofessor of English and comparative literature at Colombia University and author of Orientalism, Out of Place: A Memoir and his latest book, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.
You probably did a mental double take when you heard the sponsorship announcement that ran on National Public Radio for several weeks this year. It said, “Support for NPR comes from the state of Kuwait, in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation. On the web at KuwaitThanksAmerica.org.” An NPR spokeswoman responded to questions by saying, “NPR’s decision to accept underwriting from Kuwait followed normal procedures. … As always, NPR maintains a strict firewall between NPR News and its corporate division that handles underwriting.” Now NPR has announced that it will reject money from countries. But it has no plans to reassess underwriting by corporations, some of which are more powerful and wealthy than many of the world’s sovereign states.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you probably did a double take when you heard the sponsorship announcement that ran on National Public Radio for several weeks in February. It said, “Support for NPR comes from the state of Kuwait, in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation. On the web at KuwaitThanksAmerica.org.” People who contacted NPR got a canned response. A spokeswoman said, “NPR’s decision to accept underwriting from Kuwait followed normal procedures. … As always, NPR maintains a strict firewall between NPR News and its corporate division that handles underwriting.” Well, now NPR has decided to reject money from sovereign states.
To talk about funding the public airwaves and what sponsors they expect in return, we’re joined by Rick MacArthur. He’s publisher of Harper’s Magazine and has broken several stories around the issue of Kuwait’s manipulation of the media.
Rick MacArthur, welcome to Democracy Now!
JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: When you heard that underwriting credit, what was your response?
JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, I wrote a whole book about this called Second Front, about how the Kuwaitis manipulated public opinion in the United States for the then-oh, huge sum of $11 million or $12 million, with the collaboration of the old Bush administration, to drive us into the Gulf War or to get us to attack Iraq. And I thought, “My goodness, my god, this is just amazing! They’re so brazen that they’re even willing to throw money at good old NPR,” which, despite everything that’s wrong with it, you would think would be a little bit more circumspect than some other organizations. So, it’s just a blatant attempt to buy public opinion. It’s in the spirit of the new Bush administration, I presume. They want to stay close to the new Bush administration, and this is, from their point of view, a sophisticated public relations maneuver. But what’s appalling is that NPR would take the money.
You know, just to be specific, the most spectacular manipulation and falsehood was the baby incubator atrocity, which never happened. This was cooked up by the Kuwaitis, Hill+Knowlton, the public relations firm they hired, and the White House. It never happened. No babies were taken from incubators in Kuwait City hospitals by the Iraqi soldiers, but this became the rallying cry not only for the Bush administration and for George Bush himself, but for a lot of liberals who got conned into thinking that this was a war over human rights, not about geopolitics or oil. And to this day, the Kuwaiti manipulation of the American media and of American public opinion, through these various con jobs, is probably the most — I don’t know — probably, except for maybe the Spanish-American War, is the most spectacular example of a propaganda campaign really subverting American democracy in a major way.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, it was the Kuwaiti ambassador’s — the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States’s daughter who testified about babies being pulled out of incubators —
JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — by Iraqi soldiers?
JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Right. The chief witness for the Kuwaitis and for Hill+Knowlton at a congressional human rights caucus hearing was a woman, a young woman, a teenager at that time, who pretended to be a refugee and wouldn’t give her real name. She just — or her full name. She just called herself Nayirah. She turned out to be Nayirah al-Sabah, the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. And I’m convinced she was never in Kuwait during the invasion or after the invasion by the Iraqis. And she tearfully testified that she had seen 15 babies, I think it was, left to die on the cold floor of the hospital. And it was just a complete lie, a total lie. And it was repeated again and again and again in the media. The Kuwaitis did it again in front of the United Nations Security Council with the full cooperation of the U.N. Amnesty International then got sucked into it and raised the ante. By the time Amnesty was finished with it, there were 312 babies killed, which is far more babies than there were incubators in Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded. It was absolutely insane. Human Rights Watch, Middle East Watch got conned, to the extent that they suppressed the skeptics within their group, within their organization. And we went to war on a vote of — I think by a margin in the Senate of about five or six — I guess it was six votes. No, five votes, excuse me. Five votes. And at least six or seven senators cited the baby incubator atrocity or other alleged atrocities as reasons for voting for the war.
There were some other amazing things the Kuwaitis did. They subsidized a paperback best-seller called The Rape of Kuwait, which made it to number two on The New York Times paperback best-seller list, entirely bought for, paid for — bought and paid for by the Kuwaiti government, but run through a small no-name publishing house that just agreed to be the front for the Kuwaitis. They simply paid for the printing, rammed a lot of copies through the wholesalers to make it look like people were ordering them, and distributed a lot of copies to the troops, the American troops, in Saudi Arabia. Again, complete and very successful manipulation of the American press, even getting to number two on The New York Times best-seller list. Nobody wanted to buy it. It’s an absurd book full of absolutely crazy accusations against the Iraqis. I mean, I’m not trying to say the Iraqis didn’t do anything bad in Kuwait, but the exaggerations and the so-called atrocities that they were accused of committing were just over the top. And the American media went along for the ride. So, symbolically, to have NPR take money from the government of Kuwait, which is the same as it was 10 years ago — it’s still the al-Sabah oligarchy, the family oligarchy, running it — is pretty bad.
AMY GOODMAN: When you heard, then, NPR with its underwriting credit of ”NPR, brought to you by the state of Kuwait,” what was your response?
JOHN R. MacARTHUR: Well, I was disgusted. And I thought they’ve sort of lost — they’ve lost their minds. Just it’s utterly unethical to take money from a government. It’s hard enough taking money from corporations, I think, for NPR or for PBS. But to take money from sovereign states with specific political agendas, and one that in this case has a history of distorting — not just distorting the truth, just making things up and defrauding the American public, is sort of Noam Chomsky’s nightmare come true. It confirms everything Noam Chomsky says about the media. Just it’s appalling, just appalling.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Rick MacArthur, I want to thank you for being with us. Rick MacArthur, a publisher of Harper’s Magazine, again, was the publication that exposed the incubator story and the young woman who testified before Congress talking about babies being dragged out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers ini Kuwait being the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, though that was never said in the congressional hearing.
Now we’re going to have a debate on this issue. And again, we should say we understand that NPR has just decided that they would not take funding from foreign countries again. We’re joined by the ombudsperson, the first ombudsman of NPR, joining us on the line, Jeffrey Dvorkin. We’re also joined on the phone by David Barsamian, who is a producer of Alternative Radio, a weekly, independent, nationally syndicated public affairs program, and author of the forthcoming book, The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting.
Well, Jeffrey Dvorkin, can you explain what went into NPR’s decision to have news programming sponsored by the state of Kuwait?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, I can’t. I’m not in management, and I’m not part of those decisions. I write a column on the NPR website every couple of weeks where I took NPR to task for accepting money from Kuwait, for the reason that even though I think there’s a pretty good firewall between the underwriting, the people who raise the money for NPR, and the editorial departments. I think, as your first caller points out, the confusion about influence, whether it’s real or apparent, is still pretty clear in people’s minds. And I thought that it was a mistake to accept the money and that it blurred the line between that — in that firewall, in that arm’s length relationship. So —
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of response did you get from listeners?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Oh, I got a very good response. First of all, before I wrote the column, I got a lot of email traffic from listeners saying — mostly saying how appalled they were, and a few people saying that, actually, it didn’t matter to them, because they trusted NPR to keep those distinctions. But most people who wrote to me were pretty upset. And after I wrote the column saying that I felt that it was an error in judgment on the part of NPR management to accept money from the government of Kuwait, I got, you know, quite a few emails saying that they supported that. And in fairness to NPR management, I think they realized that it was an error in judgment, and they’re revisiting the policy. I don’t think they’re going to accept money from sovereign governments anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Has it been officially decided? My understanding was that was an official decision. It isn’t, actually?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: It was announced at the board meeting a week ago, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: That…?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: That the policy will be rewritten and that it was a mistake.
AMY GOODMAN: A mistake to just take funding from Kuwait or any foreign government?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Any foreign government.
AMY GOODMAN: David Barsamian, I saw you this week at University of Colorado Boulder at a conference on globalization, and you made that one of the themes of your talk. Your response?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, I’d like to discuss the alleged firewall between so-called underwriting announcements, which is a rather Orwellism for a commercial, and the actual reporting of the news. Let’s take a specific example. We’re talking about the Kuwait announcement. On Saturday, February 10th, on Weekend Edition, there was the announcement from the state of Kuwait, which immediately segued into a news report in which Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was visiting Kuwait at the time, essentially recited the administration litany about the crimes of Iraq and what is and what is not available to Iraq under the U.N. sanctions. And he essentially got a free ride from Michele Kellerman, who was doing the report. She did not challenge Powell on any of the points that he raised, nor did she bring up the point that many of the requests from Iraq for food, medicine and other items have been challenged in the U.N. committee and blocked by the U.K. and the U.S. So that firewall is, I think, somewhat shaky.
And not to be abstract, but just this morning I was listening to Morning Edition, hosted by Bob Edwards, and there was an underwriting credit from Merrill Lynch, a major investment firm, which immediately segued into a report on the decline of high-tech stocks in the current bear market, and portfolios that once paid off handsomely are now down, and there was advice to shift from risky stocks, like those high-tech stocks, into more safe, secure, conservative investments. I think this also represents — there’s been a noticeable surge in business news coverage on NPR.
AMY GOODMAN: David, we have to cut you off to have stations identify themselves, but we’re going to come back to this discussion. David Barsamian, a producer of Alternative Radio, which is a weekly, independent, nationally syndicated public affairs program. And Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, he actually comes to NPR from CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll talk about that, as well. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! After our conversation with them, we will turn to professor Edward Said to talk about a picture that The New York Times ran this past weekend of him throwing a rock. Yesterday they were forced to issue a correction on how they described it. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, joined on the telephone by David Barsamian, Boulder-based producer of Alternative Radio, weekly, independent public affairs program, author of the book, The Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting. On the line with us from Washington, Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman. What is it like, actually, Jeffrey Dvorkin, going from CBC, which has no corporate sponsorship, to NPR, which is increasingly corporate-sponsored?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, it’s not entirely true that CBC has no corporate sponsorship. The television services has commercials, like any other broadcaster. CBC Radio does not. The problem with the CBC is that because so much of it is funded by parliamentary appropriation, by government, as the Canadian government decided that it was going to cut funding to the CBC, a lot of the programming has been eviscerated, certainly on radio and on television. And I think that the CBC is not the public service broadcaster that it once was, as a result. They’re not able to turn around and fill in the gaps with underwriting credits. And I think that that’s a big difference. I mean, NPR is expanding as a news operation. It’s opening more and more bureaus around the country and around the world. And the CBC is retrenching. So, I think there’s a big difference there.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s get response to David Barsamian’s comments about the corporate underwriting or commercials, for example, the Merrill Lynch underwriting moving into the reporting on Wall Street and overall increase in business reporting.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Yeah, I think that that’s an interesting point that he raises. I’m not sure if it’s a chicken or an egg that he’s referring to, because did the reporting on the shift away from technology stocks — was it influenced because Merrill Lynch had an underwriting credit, or did Merrill Lynch decide that they would like to support business reporting on NPR? I think the firewall exists. I don’t really have a concern that, you know, the specter of Merrill Lynch hovering over the business desk is going to suddenly turn our reporters into toadies. And it’s just —
DAVID BARSAMIAN: May I say something?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: It doesn’t work like that. And it’s naive to think that it does.
AMY GOODMAN: David Barsamian?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: May I respond to that?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Mr. Dvorkin, but I think if you were the average listener, the positioning of a credit for Merrill Lynch immediately segueing into a report on the current bear market would obviously have an influence.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, I think our listeners are more sophisticated than that, and they understand that the — the way the real world works. And it doesn’t work the way you’ve described it.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, a larger issue, I think, which we also should touch upon is the increasing commercialization of public broadcasting. The Carnegie Commission report and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 did not call for any kind of underwriting. It envisioned a commercial-free public broadcasting network, both TV and radio, in the United States. And it’s most unfortunate that it has become increasingly commercialized. Initially, there was underwriting, and then now there is what is called, euphemistically, enhanced underwriting, which allows corporations to essentially brand themselves in IDing their products and services.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Yeah, not on NPR, I hasten to add. This may happen on some stations, but it doesn’t happen on NPR. I agree with you —
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Are you saying —
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I — Mr. Barsamian —
DAVID BARSAMIAN: — branding doesn’t happen on NPR?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: No, it doesn’t. I think — look, I agree with you that in a perfect world there would be more than enough money that would come from disinterested sources to support public broadcasting in both radio and television. This is clearly not an environment, governmentally, that would support that, certainly not in the United States and certainly not in Canada. I mean, perhaps Great Britain is the last redoubt of public broadcasting in that model. The BBC, with 12,000 employees and a wealth of programming and journalistic offerings, is an ideal, and one that I think we should aspire to. But in the real world of a capitalist economy such as we live in, I don’t see how that can happen.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s first ombudsman, and David Barsamian, a conversation started around the issue of the sponsorship of NPR news programming by the state of Kuwait, quote, “in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation. On the web at KuwaitThanksAmerica.org,” that ran for three weeks in the month of February, again, on the 10th anniversary. I wanted to ask how much money Kuwait paid NPR to run those ads.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I’m told it was about $170,000.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many spots ran?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: That, I don’t know. I know it ran for three weeks, and probably — this is a guess on my part — maybe once a day.
AMY GOODMAN: Were any canceled?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: No, I don’t believe so.
AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was interesting just listening to Rick MacArthur of Harper’s talking about that story of Kuwait manipulating the media by not explaining the whole issue of the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador testifying about babies being taken out of incubators. That was a Hill+Knowlton sort of adventure, Hill+Knowlton working with Kuwait. And it just dawned on me that Frank Mankiewicz — now, is he still with NPR? — had gone over to Hill+Knowlton.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: In the ’70s, I believe.
AMY GOODMAN: Was with NPR.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Or the early ’80s. He was the president of NPR way back when.
AMY GOODMAN: And now at Hill+Knowlton?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I don’t know if he’s still there. He may be retired, actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. On that issue, how many other governments have sponsored news programming on NPR?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, one directly and one indirectly. The one direct was Germany, which ran an ad on the 10th anniversary — sorry, an underwriting credit on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the other, indirect, is the government of the United States, which supports public broadcasting through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, including Pacifica.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. Is there any government that NPR has turned down?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: No, because those are the only — Kuwait and Germany are the only two that have approached NPR.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there a government that NPR would turn down? I mean, now you may have a new policy. But, for example, if Iraq asked to sponsor NPR programming?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, I don’t think NPR is going to get into that again. At least I hope they don’t. So, I think the question is academic. I think that the arm’s length relationship does need to apply to all governments at his point.
AMY GOODMAN: David Barsamian?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Again, I would iterate that that firewall that Mr. Dvorkin referred to in a perfect world is somewhat problematic. There is a correlation in the surge of business reporting and the amount of corporate sponsorship. And I still advocate a perfect world where we would have a commercial-free, underwriting-free public radio and public TV system. The United States certainly has the wealth to provide that for its citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: One other question, and that is, David Barsamian, if you see a difference between government sponsorship and corporate sponsorship in terms of the dangers of compromising news coverage. I mean, you have the 100 most powerful economies in the world, more than half of them are not countries, but companies.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Yeah, 51 of the largest economies in the world are now corporations. Corporations wield enormous influence. I mean, this is just a truism. But the influence and power of states, of sovereign nations, is really not comparable, because states can set communication policy, and in fact do determine communication policy. States have enormous mechanisms of power and coercion, for example, military forces, police forces. So there is a distinction between states and corporations, even though there is a more and more of a symbiotic relationship between the two.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Jeffrey Dvorkin?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, I mean, I agree that in a perfect world it would be perfect. But I think we have to live in the real world, too. And so, the question is: To what extent can NPR continue to exert editorial control over the content of its journalism? I think it does a pretty good job. I’ve been — as you mentioned, I worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for many years before coming to NPR. There was a lot of political influence, or pressure, shall we say, exerted upon the CBC by people in government or government agencies. Is there pressure from — is there direct pressure from corporate sponsors? I don’t think so. I think that — I think that there is a strong, sophisticated editorial system in place that manages to minimize that. Does it eliminate it entirely? No, it can’t. But it does a pretty good job in doing what it does.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask a question that is not on this subject, but since you’re on the line, Jeffrey Dvorkin, both Pacifica an NPR became known for the commentaries of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Pacifica, because we actually ran these commentaries, and ultimately were dropped from 12 public radio stations in Pennsylvania that were run by Temple University. They said it was, quote, “inappropriate” to air his voice. But they cited the precedent of NPR, which actually before Pacifica had gone into the prison and recorded his commentaries. The editor coming out said they were some of the best commentaries she had ever heard on NPR. But ultimately they never ran, and NPR locked them away in a safe, were sued by National Public — were sued by Mumia Abu-Jamal, the prisoner on death row, as well as the Prison Radio Project, that facilitated the recording. Pacifica, we have asked for those tapes from NPR, that we would run them if you won’t. But they just continue to be locked away. It’s what? Six years now. And I was wondering if NPR would release them?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Amy, are you trying to sandbag me on this?
AMY GOODMAN: I actually wasn’t. I actually just thought about that this morning, that we had the opportunity. But I don’t — I know you’re new to NPR, and I don’t know if you know this controversy.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Oh, I know the controversy, but I’m not in management, and I think you’d have to ask that of management.
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, it’s just a very important issue, especially in light of, you know, his case right now and the last appeals. But again, I think, overall, it’s one thing for NPR to decide to run them or not, but another to keep them sequestered away so that they can’t be run by anyone, since no one can now go into the prison and record him anymore in the last years. But it’s a question, then, we can — I can ask you and pursue off the air. But since I had you on, it dawned on me to ask you. Would you look into it?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I don’t think that that’s an issue right now for the ombudsman. I think it’s an issue for management, and then that’s where it properly belongs.
AMY GOODMAN: David Barsamian, any final comments, overall, on the issue of corporate and state sponsorship?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Well, I would echo the words of the founding document for public broadcasting, the Carnegie Commission report, which said that programming should serve — and I’m quoting — “as a forum for controversy and debate” and be diverse and “provide a voice for groups that may otherwise be unheard.” That’s a direct quote. Mumia Abu-Jamal and many other voices are not heard on National Public Radio or PBS, for that matter. Mr. Dvorkin has a great experience in Canada. He knows that Noam Chomsky, for example, has been on the CBC many, many times. And the last time he was on Morning Edition or All Things Considered was in 1991.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Well, he was actually on for a whole hour in 1998 on Talk of the Nation.
DAVID BARSAMIAN: Right, but not the main news programs, which is Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That’s where your audience is.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: That’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it might be something for people to get in touch with NPR’s ombudsperson about.
JEFFREY DVORKIN: I hope — I hope they would. And they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeffrey Dvorkin, the first NPR ombudsman, at ombudsman?
JEFFREY DVORKIN: This is true.
AMY GOODMAN: Ombudsman.org [sic].
JEFFREY DVORKIN: Ombudsman@npr.org.
AMY GOODMAN: @npr.org. And, David Barsamian, if people want to get in touch with you at Alternative Radio?
DAVID BARSAMIAN: The website is www.AlternativeRadio.org.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, as we move now to professor Edward Said. Now, we’re going to talk actually about another issue, but before we go to break, I thought it would just be interesting to get Professor Said’s comment on the discussion we just had, particularly around the NPR news sponsorship by the state of Kuwait on the 10th anniversary, as the ad went, “in memory of the 10th anniversary of Kuwait’s liberation. On the web at KuwaitThanksAmerica.org.”
Professor Edward Said of Columbia University, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you with us. Did you hear this actually on the radio?
EDWARD SAID: No.
AMY GOODMAN: No. What is your — what are your thoughts, overall?
EDWARD SAID: Well, first of all, I think, you know, having heard the bit of the founding document of NPR from David Barsamian, I certainly think it has very little to do with and it doesn’t legitimate the kind of sponsorship that that — that the Kuwait thing does, did. So, I think it’s a wise, very wise, and prudent thing not to have nations buying time on NPR. It’s as simple as that. Which isn’t to say that NPR is free of other kinds of pressures not from nations and so on. I mean, I think its commentary, generally speaking, it was — you know, on the air, on the Middle East and other issues of that sort, of the rather complicated ones, Palestinian issues and so on, is not terribly good. It’s gone down considerably over a period of time. But I think it’s wise to keep states out of this, and special interest groups and lobbies, that have the means to buy time and crowd out voices that don’t have the means.