Commentary

Transparency Needed in Publicly Funded News

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The Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) provides some of the best and sometimes only coverage of statewide policy issues.  That coverage often sets the agenda and shapes public opinion. Like Fox News, MSNBC  and Maine’s newspapers, MPBN has biases which effects it’s news judgement, influencing what issues it covers or ignores and how.

The First Amendment protects the media from government meddling, but competition and credibility concerns have led most media outlets towards more transparency regarding their ideological bents and potential conflicts of interest. MPBN, as a pseudo “public” entity providing a public good while receiving a taxpayer subsidy has a higher responsibility in this area than private entities, and they have failed to meet this responsibility.

MPBN has resisted efforts to disclose their underwriting/sponsor relationships when an MPBN news story involves or quotes one of those underwriter/sponsors. The public has a right to know that MPBN’s news judgement and coverage might be impacted by their financial dependence on an underwriter/sponsor, and MPBN has a responsibility to disclose those relationships when they do a story involving their underwriters/sponsors.

Here are three examples of underwriters MPBN should be disclosing when they are covered and/or quoted in stories:

Efficiency Maine

Efficiency Maine is an MPBN underwriter /sponsor. Efficiency Maine is largely funded through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade program that taxes energy producers and directs those funds towards energy efficiency investments. MPBN has frequently covered or quoted Efficiency Maine in recent years, with stories from MPBN stalwarts Susan Sharon, A.J. Higgins, Mal Leary and Tom Porter. The most recent story noted a controversial (to environmentalists and Democrats at least) PUC decision to cut allowed program spending by almost 2/3. Such a cut would almost certainly reduce Efficiency Maine’s underwriting capacity. None of the stories included a disclosure of Efficiency Maine’s underwriting/sponsor status.

First Wind

First Wind is an MPBN underwriter/sponsor.  MPBN has frequently covered First Wind related stories.  Last fall, Jay Field reported on the acquisition of First Wind ; last month A.J. Higgins reported on a PUC decision to reexamine a First Wind project permit.  None of the stories included a disclosure of First Wind’s underwriting/sponsor status.

Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM)

The NRCM is a long time and prominent MPBN underwriter. MPBN frequently  quotes NRCM staff and board members. None of the stories included a disclosure of the NRCM’s underwriting/sponsor status.

Senator David Burns (R-Washington) has introduced LD 252, An Act to Increase Transparency of Entities Receiving Substantial Amounts of Public Funding.  The bill is an attempt to shame MPBN into doing the right thing. When MPBN does a story which substantially involves and/or quotes from an underwriter/sponsor, that underwriting/sponsor relationship should be disclosed. The hearing is April 1st, and I’m sure MPBN and the environmental left will have plenty of lame excuses as to why MPBN’s lack of transparency should continue unchallenged.

About Jonathan Reisman

Jon Reisman is an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine at Machias. He was chair of the Professional Studies Division, which houses the Education program, for a decade. He speaks for himself.

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