In April, Seattle public radio station KUOW-FM landed itself in the middle an ethics controversy sparked by a segment compiled by reporter Meghan Walker in mid-April, one that took aim at billboards appearing in Seattle for a website—YourOptions.com—that offered options for women wrestling with unplanned pregnancies.
The saga that has unfolded since the segment was broadcast from studios on the campus of the University of Washington may serve as a lesson to what happens when a business with access to publicly-funded airwaves flexes its considerable political muscle to ward off competition.
YourOptions.com was created by the Vitae Foundation and refers women to Care Net, a national network of limited-service pregnancy centers. Walker’s piece used the appearance of Seattle-area billboards advertising YourOptions.com as a starter for talking about legislation Planned Parenthood has been pushing in Olympia to require limited-service pregnancy centers to clearly state their ideological position on the issue of abortion.
Vitae and other limited-service providers have challenged such proposals on free speech grounds, an argument Walker inadvertently underscored by failing to contact Vitae for the KUOW segment. Walker did, however, give Planned Parenthood Seattle public affairs director Kristen Glundberg-Prossor ample airtime to conduct an informal (and misleading) critique of the content on YourOptions.com.
Last week, the Washington News Council accepted the complaint against KUOW filed June 9th by the Vitae Foundation—the creator of YourOptions.com. Vitae’s complaint alleges the public broadcaster gave heavily biased reporting, going so far as to invite YourOptions.com’s primary competitor—Planned Parenthood—to critique its site without giving Vitae an opportunity to provide balance.
Based on the transcript of Walker’s news report, it is hard to argue with Vitae’s claim that bias existed in KUOW’s reporting:
Glundberg–Prossor: “This does not really seem to have all the options. If abortion is one of the options, let me look here and see.”
We’re looking up YourOptions.com on her office computer.
Walker: “So looking at this website, what should they do differently here?”
Glundberg–Prossor: “When we’re looking at this website we just want them to give full disclosure and be up front about what kind of information they’re going to provide.”
Prossor’s incorrect implications about the site were uncontested in the on-air segment and though KUOW made correction to the online version of the report, radio listeners would never know that YourOptions.com clearly takes an agnostic position on abortion, as well as presenting abortion as an option.
Last Friday, this already hot issue jumped the firebreak when Vitae filed a complaint with the national office of National Public Radio, of which KUOW is a network affiliate. The second challenge to KUOW’s ethics comes at a time when the station is undergoing a review of their ethics policy, one that could redefine how close a relationship publicly-funded media can have with other quasi-public organizations, in this case Planned Parenthood.
In the complaint filed with the WNC, Vitae charged that “Instead of interviewing Vitae about its billboards and website, KUOW interviewed Planned Parenthood, an organization that views Vitae as a competitor.”
But as an organization stepping into Washington State, Vitae could not possibly know that Planned Parenthood is not only a business competitor, as their complaint to the Washington News Council suggests, but a shrewd political operator capable of placing a thumb on the pulse of Olympia legislators.
From filings to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, the family planning services empire is seen to have busied itself with currying influence in state politics.
In 2008-2010, Planned Parenthood Votes Washington PAC has spent $442,469. In 2008, the Planned Parenthood PAC made independent expenditures of almost $80,000 to support Democratic candidates for state legislature.
In 2010, they spent $88,000 in support of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Perhaps even more telling is who within Washington’s higher ed system is donating to Planned Parenthood’s PAC. The results of a PDC database search are illuminating. From 2008 to the present, the PDC database reports that donations from employees of Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, Western Washington University, and Washington State University total $655.
What is the total reported by the PDC over the same period for donations from University of Washington employees? $4,047.50.