National Public Radio Criticized in Congressional Hearing

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Members of Congress Thursday demanded that the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting explain questionable reporting practices by National Public Radio.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) President and CEO Robert Coonrod appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to argue in favor of the corporation's fiscal year 2003 funding request.

After his testimony, however, members questioned Coonrod about a Jan. 22, 2002, report by National Public Radio (NPR)
correspondent David Kestenbaum concerning the FBI investigation into the mailing of letters containing anthrax powder to members of Congress.

"Two of the anthrax letters were sent to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, both Democrats," Kestenbaum reported, according to an NPR transcript. "One group who had a gripe with Daschle and Leahy is the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC),
which, before the attacks, had issued a press release criticizing the senators for trying to remove the phrase 'so help me God' from the oath."

Kestenbaum added, "The Traditional Values Coalition, however, told me the FBI had not contacted them and then issued a press release saying NPR was in the pocket of the Democrats and trying to frame them. But investigators are thinking along these lines. FBI agents won't discuss the case, but the people they have spoken with will."

Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) said the incident was an example of the type of "irresponsible journalism," that would "erode the credibility of public broadcasting." He further described the accusation as "libel."

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif) was especially critical of NPR for suggesting a possible link between the TVC's criticism of Daschle and Leahy and the mailing of anthrax.

"I would chastise [Daschle and Leahy] for this and I don't mail anthrax," Cunningham said.

Coonrod's response was that CPB does not monitor the editorial content of NPR news broadcasts. He added that many of the reports carried by NPR are produced by grant-funded entities not under the direct control of NPR or CPB.

Following a furor over the NPR report, the organization did admit it was "inappropriate" to single out TVC in the story.

"Reporter David Kestenbaum contacted that group to ask if it had been contacted by the FBI. The TVC said it had not, since there is no evidence that it was or should be investigated. The TVC said it was inappropriate for it to be named on the air," the correction stated. "The NPR editors agree."

That statement was read during the Jan. 29, 2002, airing of NPR's "Morning Edition."

Cunningham said the NPR announcement was not an apology. He added that both the language and nature of the statement were "off-target."

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was one of several members of the House to address the subject in one-minute floor speeches.

"Mr. Speaker, I'm really concerned about what's happened here. Although I have supported NPR's public funding, I know when someone's been wronged," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's the Traditional Values Coalition or the ACLU, right or left wing, they didn't deserve to be treated this way; to be forced to disprove a negative."

His criticisms also extended to NPR's refusal to formally apologize for its admitted error.

"I'm happy to see that NPR has technically apologized," Foley concluded. "I can only hope they do so again much more loudly and much more often."

NPR receives approximately $3 million annually from Congress, according to Cunningham's office, approximately one percent of the organization's budget. A spokeswoman for Cunningham said the congressman believes NPR should be held accountable for its actions if it is going to accept money from U.S. taxpayers.

Calls to National Public Radio for additional comment were not returned prior to this story's publication.

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