Alicia C. Shepard
It would be reasonable for a listener to conclude that NPR likes and supports the new movie, The Soloist, about the relationship between a newspaper columnist and a gifted, homeless musician.
Two days before the movie opened on April 24, Morning Edition did an 8-minute story about Los Angeles' skid row and Steve Lopez, the Los Angeles Times columnist, whose book is the basis for the movie.
The night before the movie debuted, All Things Considered host Robert Siegel did an 8-minute interview with the movie's director. At the interview's end, Siegel invited listeners to go to npr.org to read an excerpt from Lopez's book.
And then the morning the movie opened, Morning Edition's film critic, Kenneth Turan, who works for the Los Angeles Times, gave a 3-minute personal review. After that, listeners were invited to watch clips of The Soloist and get more movie reviews at npr.org.
One astute listener, Elliott Mitchell, who volunteers for WPLN in Nashville, noticed the rather large amount of attention to one movie and sent me links to five NPR segments that either mentioned the movie or directly reported on it. That includes the three above and two brief mentions.
Why 19 minutes on one movie?
"I can't speak for the other shows but certainly in our case it seemed apt to look at the real life story that inspired The Soloist if we were spending several days examining LA's skid row," said Madhulika Sikka, ME's executive producer. She said Turan's reviews are selected weeks before and usually are coordinated with whatever he is writing for the Times.
But what was more troubling to Mitchell is that Dreamworks Pictures, which is behind The Soloist, also bought funding credits to promote the movie.
The credits ran from April 13 to April 26 on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and the music show From the Top.
"I will not and do not want to believe there is collusion of that nature at NPR with The Soloist," Mitchell wrote. "But may I submit that — from my perspective — it's possible to make that connection. My reaction is that some listeners might believe that NPR is selling out."
What it clearly looks like is old-fashion pay for play: Dreamworks pays to 'advertise' on NPR, and NPR, hoping to please and encourage Dreamworks to spend more, devotes 19 minutes to the movie.
It's not the case. NPR is not selling out. But it is worth explaining what happened with the funding credit and why it shouldn't.
About one week in advance, NPR's corporate sponsorship division sends a schedule of funding credits to all NPR shows so they have an opportunity to identify conflicts before they air, said John King, operations manager. He says the schedules are emailed and hand-delivered to Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
A firewall really does exist between the editorial and marketing sides of NPR to prevent NPR sponsors from influencing programming.
"To that extent, the firewall has worked," said King. "We are also interested in avoiding situations when a sponsorship announcement runs near a story or review that mentions the sponsor, so that listeners do not think there is a connection between the sponsor and the content. These unfortunate juxtapositions don't happen all the time. But they do happen occasionally."
Morning Edition, which ran two stories about The Soloist, anticipated the conflict and moved the funding credit twice to avoid the awkward appearance of a credit following a story.
But that didn't happen with ATC.
ATC's executive producer, Christopher Turpin, said he never saw the list of funders in this case, which is why he didn't move the credit.
"Had I seen it, I would have moved it, as I've done in the past, and as ME apparently did," said Turpin. "The bottom line is we usually move credit conflicts, this time we missed one. And it's a wake-up call to develop a better process."
Sikka added that ME may have moved the credit this time but it is an inexact science.
"Sometimes we miss them pure and simple and that's just the way it is," she said. "If someone sees a credit close to a piece about the same thing we'd ask to move it to avoid the 'appearance' of a conflict. Sometimes we don't because we don't see it or forget to notice."
Turpin said that movie studios like to advertise on NPR shows because NPR listeners tend to like segments about movies.
"Generally, the reason we are talking to people about their movies is because the person or the movie is interesting," said Turpin. "I am interested in avoiding misconceptions on the audience's part (as in this case). But we make our own value judgments about whether a movie is worth covering. The funder has nothing to do with it." Sikka agrees.
This situation brings out an inherent dilemma at NPR and other public radio stations. How do you have a firewall if you pay attention to the placement of funding credits? But if you don't pay attention to the credits, then the perception of "pay for play" can arise.
This happened before with the TV show '24'. And with the movie No Country for Old Men and possibly other times I have missed.
It shouldn't happen and it's easy to fix. But the shows do need an established process, and not to do it on a haphazard basis. A top editor from each NPR-show should make sure to check the funding credits each day against that day's show's schedule of stories and rearrange any conflicting funding credits. This would reduce the appearance that NPR is doing stories only to satisfy a funder.