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NPR quits Twitter after being falsely labeled as 'state-affiliated media'

NPR announced it would cease posting to Twitter after the social media platform labeled the nonprofit "Government-funded Media."
Charles Dharapak
/
AP
NPR announced it would cease posting to Twitter after the social media platform labeled the nonprofit "Government-funded Media."

Updated April 12, 2023 at 4:29 PM ET

NPR will no longer post fresh content to its 52 official Twitter feeds, becoming the first major news organization to go silent on the social media platform. In explaining its decision, NPR cited Twitter's decision to first label the network "state-affiliated media," the same term it uses for propaganda outlets in Russia, China and other autocratic countries.

The decision by Twitter last week took the public radio network off guard. When queried by NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn, Twitter owner Elon Musk asked how NPR functioned. Musk allowed that he might have gotten it wrong.

Twitter then revised its label on NPR's account to "government-funded media." The news organization says that is inaccurate and misleading, given that NPR is a private, nonprofit company with editorial independence. It receives less than 1 percent of its $300 million annual budget from the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

By going silent on Twitter, NPR's chief executive says the network is protecting its credibility and its ability to produce journalism without "a shadow of negativity."

"The downside, whatever the downside, doesn't change that fact," NPR CEO John Lansing said in an interview. "I would never have our content go anywhere that would risk our credibility."

In a BBC interview posted online Wednesday, Musk suggested he may further change the label to "publicly funded." His words did not sway NPR's decision makers. Even if Twitter were to drop the designation altogether, Lansing says the network will not immediately return to the platform.

"At this point I have lost my faith in the decision-making at Twitter," he says. "I would need some time to understand whether Twitter can be trusted again."

NPR's Allyn emailed Musk on Wednesday morning asking for "your reaction" to the news organization quitting Twitter.

Initially, Musk didn't respond, but a couple of hours later Musk tweeted out Allyn's email followed with a tweet saying "Defund @NPR." His followers quickly piled on.

NPR is instituting a "two-week grace period" so the staff who run the Twitter accounts can revise their social-media strategies. Lansing says individual NPR journalists and staffers can decide for themselves whether to continue using Twitter.

In an email to staff explaining the decision, Lansing wrote, "It would be a disservice to the serious work you all do here to continue to share it on a platform that is associating the federal charter for public media with an abandoning of editorial independence or standards."

For years, many journalists considered Twitter critical to monitoring news developments, to connect with people at major events and with authoritative sources, and to share their coverage. Musk's often hastily announced policy changes have undermined that. Lansing says that degradation in the culture of Twitter — already often awash in abusive content — contributed to NPR's decision to pull back.

Musk proves conciliatory and erratic in BBC interview

PBS, which also receives money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the BBC, which is funded by a uniform license fee charged to British television viewers, are among those whose Twitter accounts were given the same designation.

In the new interview with the BBC's James Clayton, Musk almost appeared to be seeking a compromise with the journalist. He said Twitter would adjust its labels for the British public broadcaster to "publicly funded."

"We're trying to be accurate," Musk said. "I actually do have a lot of respect for the BBC." He said the interview offered him a chance to "get some feedback on what we should be doing different."

When questioned by Clayton, Musk replied that the "publicly funded" label would apply to NPR as well. The change was not made before NPR's decision on Wednesday morning, however.

The BBC exchange showed Musk as alternately conciliatory and erratic. He also said that he's sleeping on a couch at work, that he followed through on his promise to purchase Twitter only because a judge forced him to, and that he should stop tweeting after 3 a.m.

"The point is the independence," NPR leader says

Lansing says Musk is focusing attention on the wrong element of the equation.

"The whole point isn't whether or not we're government funded," Lansing says. "Even if we were government funded, which we're not, the point is the independence, because all journalism has revenue of some sort."

NPR's board is appointed without any government influence. And the network has at times tangled with both Democratic and Republican administrations. For example, NPR joined with other media organizations to press the Obama administration for access to closed hearings involving detainees held by U.S. authorities at Guantanamo Bay. And "All Things Considered" host Mary Louise Kelly stood her ground in questioning then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over then-President Donald Trump's actions in Ukraine despite being berated by Pompeo.

Most of NPR's funding comes from corporate and individual supporters and grants. It also receives significant programming fees from member stations. Those stations, in turn, receive about 13 percent of their funds from the CPB and other state and federal government sources.

It isn't clear that a withdrawal from Twitter will materially affect NPR's ability to reach an online audience. NPR's primary Twitter account has 8.8 million followers — more than a million more than follow the network on Facebook. Yet Facebook is a much bigger platform, and NPR's Facebook posts often are far more likely to spur engagement or click-throughs to NPR's own website. NPR Music has almost 10 times more followers on YouTube than it does on Twitter, and the video platform serves as one of the primary conduits for its popular Tiny Desk Series.

Musk uses Twitter to question the legitimacy of media outlets

NPR's decision follows a week of public acrimony, as Musk has used his platform to cast doubt on the legitimacy of major news organizations.

The billionaire, who bought Twitter in October, previously announced he would remove check marks from the accounts of legacy news organizations unless the outlets paid for them. The coveted marks once meant Twitter had verified the authenticity of an account belonging to a news organization, government or public figure. Now, they can be bought through a monthly subscription.

Musk also singled out The New York Times earlier this month, removing its check mark and calling its reporting "propaganda." Twitter's communications shop now simply responds to reporters' emails with poop emojis.

At least three public radio stations preceded NPR to the exits at Twitter: Member stations KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., WESA in Pittsburgh and WEKU, which serves central and eastern Kentucky. (After NPR said that it was leaving Twitter on Wednesday, Boston-based WBUR announced that it, too, would stop posting on the platform "in solidarity with NPR," according to a statement from its CEO, Margaret Low.)

Fears that Twitter label could endanger journalists

Journalism and freedom-of-speech groups have condemned Twitter's labels, including PEN, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"NPR receives public funding, but is not state-controlled, meaning Twitter's listing could pose risks for journalists reporting from areas where suggestions of government affiliation have negative connotations," CPJ's Carlos Martínez de la Serna said in a statement urging Twitter to revisit its decision.

Twitter's own guidelines previously said, "State-financed media organizations with editorial independence, like the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US for example, are not defined as state-affiliated media for the purposes of this policy."

That language has now been removed. In addition to NPR and the BBC, Twitter recently labeled the U.S. broadcaster Voice of America as government-funded media. Voice of America is part of the federal U.S. Agency for Global Media. But its editorial independence from government officials — at times hard won — is enshrined by law.

"The label 'government funded' is potentially misleading and could be construed as also 'government-controlled' – which VOA is most certainly not," VOA spokesperson Bridget Serchak said in a statement to NPR.

Serchak says VOA will continue to raise the distinction in talks with Twitter as the label "causes unwarranted and unjustified concern about the accuracy and objectivity of [its] news coverage."

At Elon Musk's Twitter, unpredictability is the norm

Like so many policy decisions at the social network of late, Musk applied the label to NPR's Twitter account abruptly. It's still not clear why he became so animated about the issue.

In his exchanges with NPR reporter Allyn, Musk said he was relying on a Wikipedia page dedicated to "publicly funded broadcasters" to determine which accounts should receive the label.

When pressed for how he justifies the disclaimer considering NPR receives meager funding from the government and has complete editorial independence, Musk veered into conspiratorial territory.

"If you really think that the government has no influence on the entity they're funding then you've been marinating in the Kool-Aid for too long," Musk wrote to Allyn.

Musk's push to label the network even ran afoul of the site's own rules. A former Twitter executive who was involved in crafting the guidelines told NPR that the deciding factor in whether to issue the designation was whether an outlet had editorial freedom. The labels, the former executive said, were intended to give users context that a tweet they are seeing may be propaganda.

The messy deliberations on display in Musk's email exchanges over labeling NPR's account are in line with his impulsive leadership style. His changes to the platform often are announced by tweet, with sudden reversals not uncommon, or promised changes never coming to fruition. Because Musk relishes troll-like behavior, there is always a possibility that his pronouncements turn out to be jokes. He has announced that the effective date for the change in the check mark verification system is April 20. The date is an inside joke among people who smoke or consume marijuana.

Disclosure: This story was reported and written by NPR Media Correspondent David Folkenflik and edited by Acting Chief Business Editor Emily Kopp, Managing Editor Vickie Walton-James and Business Editor Lisa Lambert. NPR's Bobby Allyn, Mary Yang and Dara Kerr contributed to this story. Under NPR's protocol for reporting on itself, no corporate official or news executive reviewed this story before it was posted publicly.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.