Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project reports an amusing e-mail exchange he recently had with NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin about the radio network's policy regarding the identification of sponsors. Mirken noted that an announcement during Morning Edition "refers to the underwriter as 'ONDCP,' followed by a short tag line about how parents should be involved in their kids' lives. The use of an acronym unfamiliar to most listeners, combined with the ultra-innocuous tag line, seems calculated to obscure the fact that the underwriter is in fact the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy."
Given ONDCP's involvement in promoting and maintaining controversial and unpopular policies such as the arrest and jailing of seriously ill people who use medical marijuana, it's not hard to see why they would choose to be semi-clandestine about their sponsorship. But NPR's stated mission, "to create a more informed public–one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures," surely requires a more honest and complete disclosure. Indeed, last November the FCC ruled that anti-drug commercials sponsored by ONDCP must carry the tag line, "sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy."
Dvorkin replied that NPR is not a commercial broadcaster and therefore is not bound by the FCC rule. He conceded that "your criticism of ONDCP as being inherently political…may be a valid one" but added that in this case it was offering an "entirely legitimate message of parental involvement in their children's lives," and "many news media accept their advertising." Anyway, he said, using the ONDCP's full name would take too much time.
In response, Mirken noted that NPR covers many drug-related controversies in which the ONDCP is intimately involved. He tried to elucidate the issue with an analogy:
NPR regularly covers the activities of the U.S. military and Department of Defense, occasionally abbreviated as DOD. If the defense department became an underwriter, do you really think it would be acceptable to run an underwriting announcement saying, "supported by DOD…"?
The answer, presumably, would depend on whether the Defense Department's message was "entirely legitimate" (who could object, for instance, to "Be all that you can be"?) and how long it took to say "Department of Defense." It is, after all, three words shorter than "Office of National Drug Control Policy."