Buying the Media to Sell the Iran Nuke Deal

Time to investigate the pay-to-play scheming of NPR, the White House and left-wing non-profits.

Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications, was the subject of a recent eye-opening New York Times Magazine article. The article discussed Rhodes’ prominent role in selling Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran to the public. Rhodes, who was originally interested in writing fiction before embarking on a government career, boasted of the “echo chamber” the administration was able to create among pliant media and non-profit groups to spin the deal in its most favorable light. Channeling his days as an aspiring novelist, Rhodes filled the echo chamber with a false narrative. It turns out that the “echo chamber” itself was more like a pay-to-play chamber, which merits investigation for possible illegal conduct by at least two non-profit tax-exempt organizations.

Money was dispensed through pro-nuclear deal tax-exempt organizations to buy favorable coverage in the media, including the tax-exempt National Public Radio (NPR), according to an Associated Press report. Ben Rhodes had specifically mentioned “outside groups like Ploughshares” as playing a key role in conveying the pro-nuclear deal narrative that the Obama administration wanted the public to hear.

According to the Associated Press report, Ploughshares, a left-wing non-profit organization financed by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, “gave National Public Radio $100,000 last year to help it report on the pact and related issues.”

Since 2005, Ploughshares has plowed about $700,000 into NPR’s coffers. Since 2010, the grants to NPR specifically mention Iran.  Ploughshares’ 2015 annual report, for example, explains that the purpose of its grant to National Public Radio, Inc. is to “support national security reporting that emphasizes the themes of US nuclear weapons policy and budgets, Iran’s nuclear program, international nuclear security topics and US policy toward nuclear security.” (Emphasis added)

Ploughshares and NPR are both 501© (3) non-profit organizations, which take tax deductible contributions.  Both organizations are prohibited from engaging in any substantial lobbying, advocacy of legislation or “propaganda.”  Although both may have crossed the line in spreading Rhodes’ propaganda regarding the nuclear deal with Iran, they have denied any wrongdoing.

 ”It is common practice for foundations to fund media coverage of underreported stories,” Ploughshares spokeswoman Jennifer Abrahamson said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

Underreported? President Obama and senior members of his administration dominated the airwaves in pushing the deal, including on NPR. Many in the mainstream media were also advocates for the deal. Using funds donated to a non-profit organization such as Ploughshares to buy influence with a public broadcasting station would appear to be a step too far. Yet that is precisely what Ploughshares did.

Indeed, Ploughshares President Joseph Cirincione credited his organization for using “high-impact grantmaking” in “creating the conditions necessary for supporters of the Iran agreement to beat the political odds… we provided funding with support from those who understood the urgency of securing this agreement. Ploughshares Fund raised and disbursed over $11 million in grants over the past five years.”

Ploughshares’ 2015 annual report listed a broadcast by its grantee National Public Radio, Inc. under the heading:   “Iran Lobbying Battle Heats Up On The Airwaves.”

Cirincione savagely criticized the New York Times reporter David Samuels who exposed Ploughshares’ connection to Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber. He wrote that Samuels’ piece was a “grossly skewed version of reality” and “a fictional narrative.” Cirincione seems to have forgotten that it was Ben Rhodes who had trained as the fiction writer.

Ploughshares has spread its largesse to push the Iranian nuclear deal beyond just NPR. For example, one of its grantees is the National Iranian American Council, a pro-Iranian lobbyist in the United States.

Ploughshares’ tax exempt status should be examined for its propaganda and lobbying role in helping to fund Rhodes’ echo chamber reverberations.

NPR claims its “partnership” with Ploughshares came with no strings attached. NPR said in an emailed statement, quoted in the AP article, “As with all support received, we have a rigorous editorial firewall process in place to ensure our coverage is independent and is not influenced by funders or special interests.”

NPR has a distinctly liberal bias, to be sure. Therefore, it would not be surprising if its coverage tended to be supportive of the Iran nuclear deal, with or without Ploughshares’ money. However, NPR has given an overwhelming amount of airtime to proponents of the deal, while refusing outright a request by a Republican congressman for airtime to counter pro-deal comments of a Democrat.

Ploughshares’ president had no problem getting airtime on NPR to defend the deal.  He appeared twice on NPR during March 2015 as the negotiations were underway. His first appearance was on March 23, 2015, during which he went after Obama’s opponents. NPR made no disclosure at the time that Ploughshares was a donor, as required by federal statute and the Federal Communication Commission’s payola rules. Only after the publication of the Associated Press story – more than a year after the broadcast – did NPR add the following partial disclosure as a postscript to the March 23, 2015 transcript: “Editor’s note on May 20, 2016: This report should have stated that Ploughshares Fund is a supporter of NPR’s coverage of nonproliferation and national security issues.”

NPR senior correspondent Steve Inskeep, who made $404, 818 in total compensation according to NPR’s 2013 tax filing, interviewed Joseph Cirincione regarding the Iran deal on March 31, 2015. “This negotiation could stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, and that is good enough,” Cirincione told Inskeep.

Immediately at the end of that broadcast, Inskeep managed to offer the same partial disclosure text that was added to the transcript of the March 23, 2015 broadcast for the first time just last week. In either case – whether timely or not – NPR did not disclose specifically that Ploughshares has contributed money to NPR for targeted use in broadcasting content on Iran’s nuclear program.

There is a statutory obligation on licensees under the Federal Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. § 317, “to make a sponsorship identification announcement when matter is broadcast in return for any money, service or other valuable consideration received by the licensee.” The FCC’s payola rules state: “When a broadcast licensee has received or been promised payment for the airing of program material, then, at the time of the airing, the station must disclose that fact and identify who paid for or promised to pay for the material.” The FCC wants to make sure that broadcasters “let their audiences know if material was paid for, and by whom.”  

At best, NPR skirted the FCC’s payola rules and should be investigated for possible violations. In fact, the pattern of pro-Iranian broadcasts extended beyond hosting Ploughshares’ president on NPR with incomplete disclosures, one of which was made more than a year late.  NPR correspondent Steve Inskeep also conducted softball interviews of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani. Neither interview was accompanied by a disclosure of Ploughshares’ funding targeted for NPR’s favorable coverage of Iran’s nuclear program.

Inskeep asked President Rouhani, for example, a question right out of Rhodes’ playbook, designed to manipulate American listeners into believing that there was a truly moderate faction in Iran with whom we can effectively negotiate:

Question:  “I want to understand where you are on the Iranian political spectrum, because you’ve become associated with the movement for change and reform. But as many people will know, you’ve spent many years in senior government positions. Where are you on the Iranian political spectrum? How would you define yourself?”

Rouhani responded that he tries to take the middle course, listening to both conservatives and reformers. Inskeep did not challenge Rouhani with the fact that the hardliners led by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard are really in charge in Iran.  

Inskeep also did not push back against assertions by both Rouhani and Larijani that Iran was an open democratic society.  

Meanwhile, NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik went on the air in an interview with Renee Montagne, a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, to defend Ben Rhodes against the revelations in the New York Times Magazine article. Just like the president of NPR’s donor Ploughshares, Folkenflik criticized the New York Times reporter who had exposed Rhodes’ echo chamber stratagem, including Ploughshares’ involvement. Renee Montagne, who made even more money than Inskeep according to NPR’s 2013 tax filing, raised the question whether the New York Times reporter, Samuels, had possibly done “a little manipulating” himself. Folkenflik would not go that far, but said that Samuels had biases against a negotiated deal with Iran that should have been disclosed to the readers.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. NPR has done as much as possible to pretend it is an objective news agency and to obscure the Iran connection to its funding from Ploughshares. Unlike print media, however, NPR is a broadcast company that must follow FCC rules. It is also a tax exempt organization subject to IRS rules about lobbying and propagandizing. If NPR accepted payola to propagandize, which is a distinct possibility, both federal agencies should be taking notice.