Alicia C. Shepard
NPR is a complicated news entity.
It produces 59 hours of original news programming each week heard across the public radio system, the best-known of which are Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Then, it distributes 18 shows such as Car Talk, The Diane Rehm Show, and Fresh Air, which local public radio stations or independent producers create without any direct NPR editorial control.
But the average listener is pleasantly (and should be) oblivious to these business distinctions. If a listener hears a show on a public radio station, the assumption often is that NPR is responsible for the program. Sometimes that's accurate; sometimes not.
So it's no surprise that NPR was held responsible when Slate.com posted a piece on May 6 pointing out conflicts of interest and lack of balance in a March show, "Prozac Nation: Revisited" on The Infinite Mind. The Infinite Mind airs on one of NPR's Sirius channels.
Here is what was sent to me on May 8:
NPR show may stand in a class by itself for concealing bias
Slate: An episode of The Infinite Mind called "Prozac Nation: Revisited" featured four experts who have financial ties to the makers of antidepressants — something that public radio listeners weren't told. Also, they weren't informed that the show receives money from Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly. Paging Alicia Shepard!
Posted at 11:17:57 AM
Was this the "Pentagon Pundits' Problem" all over again? (See my April 28, 2008 column 'NPR, The New York Times and Sourcing Military Experts')
Not specifically, but it is the latest tangle to arise concerning the undisclosed ties of "experts" on the air.
On March 26, The Infinite Mind ran "Prozac Nation: Revisited," an hour-long piece questioning the science behind high-profile news stories that reported a link between anti-depressants and suicide or violence. "There really is no science that we were able to find that if you take anti-depressants, you will be more violent," Bill Lichtenstein, who created the show 10 years ago, told me.
But Slate health writers, Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, disagreed. "The body of evidence on this issue is conflicting and there are huge battles in the medical arena on this," said Lenzer.
The Slate authors say the issue is more complex than the show indicated. There were four experts on "Prozac Nation," and all dismissed the idea that these medications could affect suicidal or violent behavior. "They only offered a singular viewpoint," said Lenzer. "They [the show] should have dug up different sources and independent sources."
Lichtenstein said that was because "there are no scientific, clinical or epidemiological research or studies that indicate a direct link." (For another take)
But more importantly, the show didn't disclose that the guests and host had some financial ties to makers of anti-depressants. "To me, it's not terribly relevant whether there's a clear scientific link between anti-depressants and suicide," said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview, an independent website that evaluates health coverage. "Bill Lichtenstein does good work. But he should have disclosed the financial ties."
One of the guests was Peter Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration official. The show's host doesn't mention that Pitts is senior vice president for global health affairs at a public relations firm. That firm represents drug companies that make anti-depressants. Lichtenstein acknowledged that Pitts' business ties should have been mentioned. He said Pitts didn't disclose them while the Website Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, where Pitts is president, says he did.
"If we had known, and (full mea culpa here) we should have, we would have disclosed that connection," wrote Lichtenstein in a response on Slate's, The Fray. "Pitts apparently didn't disclose it elsewhere, either - he's appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation as well as PBS' News Hour with Jim Lehrer, without either of those programs mentioning the PR company ties." (Slate responded to Lichtenstein on May 12.)
Lichtenstein is correct about Talk of the Nation. Pitts appeared on the show in June 2005, one year after joining the public relations firm Manning Selvage & Lee, according to the firm. The call-in show identified him only as with the Pacific Research Institute, which lists itself as a non-profit educational charity promoting free market policy solutions.
Another issue is The Infinite Mind's funding. According to Lichtenstein, he takes no more than 15 percent of the budget from any one sector. In 2006, he told me, the program got $100,000 from Eli Lily, which makes the anti-depressant, Prozac.
All that said: Is The Infinite Mind an NPR show?
Technically, it depends on what you mean by an NPR show. The Infinite Mind is distributed several ways. Show creator Lichtenstein independently produces and distributes the program to 300 public radio stations and also offers podcasts. In addition, NPR has a contractual relationship with Lichtenstein to run the program on Sirius' NPR Now.
"We acquire the show only for our satellite service," said Margaret Low Smith, vice president for programming who handles program acquisition for NPR. Acquired shows are programs that are not produced by NPR employees.
For example Fresh Air, On the Media and Car Talk are "acquired" from outside producers exclusively for NPR to distribute to its member stations. Those programs carry the NPR brand. The Infinite Mind is in another class because NPR does not distribute it to member stations so the show doesn't carry the NPR brand.
"Nonetheless," said Smith, "if we are going to put a show up on our Sirius service, our expectation is it will live up to NPR standards and if it doesn't, it can become an issue."
When NPR distributes a show produced by non-NPR employees —whether it comes from a member station or an independent producer — the contractual agreement says that each show must follow NPR standards and practices. "We are very careful about the shows we select for Sirius and it matters a lot to us that those shows live up to the highest journalistic standards," said Smith.
Smith said NPR is reviewing this particular episode of The Infinite Mind.
No matter what NPR finds, a few things should happen. On NPR's website listing "popular public radio shows," NPR should make it clear which are distinctly NPR-produced shows and which ones are not. For instance, the site lists Prairie Home Companion and provides a link, even though the popular show is produced and distributed by American Public Media, a competing public radio service.
The Infinite Mind, particularly since it deals in the controversial world of science and medicine, should include information on its website about how it is funded. It should also add Peter Pitts' public relations job to the link for the "Prozac Nation" episode and to any related transcripts.
Being upfront about real or potential financial conflicts of interest is key to establishing credibility. Financial associations don't mean that experts should necessarily be disqualified as commentators, but the public must be told about them.
With the Internet, it is much easier for news operations to be transparent, and they should take advantage of the ability to be more transparent if they ever want to win back the public's respect and trust.