4:30pm

Mon April 11, 2011
NPR Ombudsman

Local Station Pulls Planned Parenthood Spots

Following standard procedures at LA-based public radio station KPCC, the program director sent an internal memo Friday suspending its sponsorship spots funded by Planned Parenthood.

"Given that the (federal) budget debate in Congress is focusing today on abortion in general and Planned Parenthood by extension, let us suspend airing any Planned Parenthood spots effective immediately," wrote program director Craig Curtis in an internal email.

"There is nothing wrong with the spots per se, or with our business relationship with Planned Parenthood," continued Curtis, "but for a few days their presence on our air might raise questions in the mind of the 'reasonable listener' regarding our editorial and sales practices. I expect this will be a short-term suspension."

Because we live in public, the media news site LAObserved got a copy of the memo and, within an hour, posted it.

Then other bloggers began asking questions. Joel Meares, assistant editor of Columbia Journalism Review, asked me if this was a local station decision or whether NPR has ordered the spots pulled.

No order came from NPR; this was a local station decision.

"It would be totally inappropriate for NPR to suggest to a local station what action they should take regarding a local sponsor," said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's head of communication.

If I have learned one thing (actually I've learned many) as Ombudsman, it's that NPR member stations are fiercely independent and do not take directives from NPR. Each station is programmed locally without any NPR input. The stations can slice and dice NPR programming any way they want.

It does occasionally irk some folks at Morning Edition and All Things Considered when NPR pieces are rearranged or covered up with local pieces or with programs from other public radio networks. But that's the way the relationship is structured.

Blogger Jon Wiener insisted the spots were pulled "in response to Republican demands that Congress eliminate federal funding for the family planning group."

The UC-Irvine history professor and Pacifica radio host asked: "Was the station responding to Republican pressure on KPCC to drop its Planned Parenthood spots? Or were they responding to something they imagined might happen?"

It's understandable that Wiener could interpret it that way. But I looked into it, and this small flap might not have become a flap at all if Curtis had correctly predicted his memo would be leaked and included why KPCC was suspending the spots.

KPCC pulled the spots following its policy to suspend sponsorships from any underwriter that suddenly comes up in the news, as Planned Parenthood did last week in the budget negotiations.

NPR has a similar policy. "If a given sponsor is in the news in a controversial way, there is a provision that calls for its schedule to be evaluated to determine whether or not the spots pose the risk of potential misperception on the part of the public," said NPR's Rehm.

If nothing else, this incident provides just another reminder for any news executive (or anyone, in reality) to carefully craft emails assuming they could reach the public, as well as the intended audience. That way, there would be less ground for misinterpretations.

Here's what KPCC posted Monday:

Some of you have had concerns about the recent decision regarding Planned Parenthood. The following note is from our programming director, Craig Curtis.

The decision to temporarily suspend Planned Parenthood underwriting credits on KPCC was a routine procedural one. It was not about Planned Parenthood. It was about an underwriter that happened briefly to become the center of a major news story.

When that happens at KPCC, our standard practice is to "bump" credits to avoid the appearance of any conflict. This is a common policy at many news radio stations, and something that happens a few times each year at KPCC.

Ultimately the suspension affected only two scheduled credits for Planned Parenthood. All Planned Parenthood credits have now returned to their normal schedule and placement on our air and on the KPCC website.
— Craig Curtis
, KPCC Program Director Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.