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NPR Considers New Net Neutrality Disclosure

WASHINGTON — National Public Radio has run several reports recently, online and on-air, about the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to reverse Title II and rethink the 2015 Open Internet order, including the rule prohibiting paid prioritization of internet content.

What it has not done — at least in its most recent stories from the past several months — is disclose that NPR lawyers had asked the FCC to impose the “no paid prioritization” rule as a protection from the internet service providers it said had motive and opportunity to undermine an open internet.

In a 2014 filing, NPR said, “Allowing paid-priority access to the internet directly threatens the public-service mission of NPR, other public radio producers and distributors, public radio stations and other public-media edge providers.”

It continued, “The commission is correct to focus on assuring access by edge providers and end-users to the internet free from manipulation by broadband internet service providers (‘ISPs’) motivated to promote their economic self-interest in ways contrary to an open Internet.”

Multichannel News asked NPR, not long after that 2014 filing, about the lack of disclosure of that position in net neutrality stories. NPR standards and practices editor Mark Memmott said at the time that he had also noted that lack of disclosure, adding it was a mistake, and that henceforth the net neutrality stories would carry a disclosure.

Perhaps enough electrons have flowed under the digital bridge to make that disclosure no longer necessarily related to the 2014 filing, because there were no such admissions in the May 18 story about the vote, or a Scott Simon-hosted “primer” on the vote and potential rule changes back in April.

That’s when the NPR reporter said: “There’s the principles of net neutrality, and this is sort of this concept that internet service providers should treat all websites and apps fairly and equally. And that means they should not be blocking or slowing down any traffic, and they should not be charging companies a little extra to send their traffic a little faster. And this did come at a time when there were some incidents and accusations of internet service providers actually meddling with access and speeds of some traffic in some instances. They were blocking access to some services.”

Time Limits

Memmott explained to Multichannel News that since NPR had not filed anything new in the docket, the statute of limitations had run out, as it were, on the previous disclosure. He did signal that new disclosures could come in the future.

“We haven’t weighed in on the current debate,” he said. “We haven’t joined any organized effort to lobby on it, so, there is a bit of a statute of limitations,” he said. “Should we have thought about going back and mentioning that in 2014, NPR joined with others? Yes, there is a case to be made.”

But Memmott signaled that NPR was not going to retroactively add disclosures to its recent stories.

And what of the fact that when the FCC came up with no paid prioritization, NPR was strongly against it, and now is airing stories about the agency considering eliminating a prohibition NPR specifically lobbied for? Does not that make the 2014 comment still germane?

Disclosure Couldn’t Hurt

Memmott said he was not around when the disclosure discussions came up this time around. He added he was not alarmed that there was no disclosure, given the time that had lapsed since 2014, “but I don’t think it would hurt to tell people that back in 2014, we took this position and now, there is a discussion about unraveling it.”

All of which means it’s possible that NPR might start to disclose that 2014 filing in future stories, given that the issue will be active for months to come. “We are definitely going to talk about ‘do we need to disclose’ going forward,” Memmott said.

NPR ombudswoman Sally Jensen, delivering the 2017 George Chaplin Fellowship in Distinguished Journalism address at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, last month, pointed out that her contribution to the Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Trust Project was to come up with “a few ‘best practices’ that trustworthy journalism adheres to,” one of which was “a policy of disclosing any issues on which you express an advocacy voice and why you do so.”

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.