White House defends NPR after Twitter labels outlet ‘state-affiliated media’

Critics are blasting Elon Musk for turning the once influential platform into “a propaganda outfit to fit with his political views”

Alex Woodward
New York
Wednesday 05 April 2023 19:57 BST
Twitter: Elon Musk backtracks on promoting non verified users' posts

Elon Musk-owned Twitter falsely applied a “state-affiliated media” label to an account for American public radio broadcaster and publisher NPR, putting it among accounts for authoritarian-run propaganda and state-controlled media groups like Russia Today and China’s Xinhua News.

NPR’s president and CEO John Lansing said in a statement that the company was “disturbed” to see the label, “a description that, per Twitter’s own guidelines, does not apply to NPR.”

“NPR and our member stations are supported by millions of listeners who depend on us for the independent, fact-based journalism we provide,” he said. “NPR stands for freedom of speech and holding the powerful accountable. It is unacceptable for Twitter to label us this way. A vigorous, vibrant free press is essential to the health of our democracy.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the independence of NPR journalists, telling reporters on 5 April that the outlet’s journalists “work diligently to hold public officials accountable and inform the American people.”

“The hard-hitting independent nature of their coverage speaks for itself,” she said.

Twitter defines “state-affiliated media” as “outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.”

“Seems accurate,” Mr Musk wrote in response to the label on NPR’s account. Except it’s not.

According to NPR, less than 1 per cent of its annual operating budget comes from grants awarded through federal agencies and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a publicly funded nonprofit organisation with a board appointed by US presidents, and with a statutory obligation to a “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.”

Since its founding more than 50 years ago, NPR has asserted editorial independence from any government agency.

The outlet is repeatedly targeted by right-wing critics, from “#DefundNPR” campaigns to statements from members of Congress accusing the company of “illegally” using taxpayer funds.

Until this week, Twitter’s own policy specifically stated that NPR as well as the BBC “are not defined as state-affiliated media.”

That policy still mentions the BBC, but the reference to NPR was deleted some time on Tuesday, hours after Twitter applied the label to NPR.

No such label has been applied to accounts for the BBC or the US-funded Stars and Stripes and Voice of America and its affiliates.

The change to NPR’s account comes after Twitter removed the verification badge for The New York Times following reports that the newspaper would not pay for Mr Musk’s newly rolled out verification scheme. Other major US outlets including The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed News, HuffPost and Politico also reportedly do not intend to pay.

“NY Times is being incredible [sic] hypocritical here, as they are super aggressive about forcing everyone to pay their subscription,” Mr Musk wrote. (The newspaper does not “force” readers to pay for subscriptions; its content on Twitter, from which Mr Musk benefits, is free.)

Twitter announced it would begin removing blue checks from verified accounts that did not pay for Mr Musk’s “Twitter Blue” service on 1 April, but it appears that the plan has not been rolled out en masse; The New York Times appeared to be singled out by Mr Musk, who responded to another Twitter user asking about the newspaper’s badge status by saying “we’ll take it off”.

On Sunday, Twitter changed the language in the description of verified users to make it unclear whether that user is paying for Twitter Blue or is a so-called “legacy” verified account, which were initially rolled out to ensure user authenticity. Now, they come as part of a paid subscription service.

Stripping that verification from The New York Times and targeting NPR “illustrates how Musk is the one running a propaganda outfit to fit with his political views,” wrote Don Moynihan, chair of the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

“Musk labeling NPR as ‘state-affiliate media’ is another example of how Twitter used to have reasonably sensible and transparent policies which are now being rewritten in obviously nonsensical ways to fit with the whims of its owner,” he added.

It’s not the first time Mr Musk has targeted news outlets and journalists who have critically covered him and his businesses. In December, he suspended accounts for roughly a dozen journalists who reported on his companies and a Twitter account that tracked his jet travel. He effectively dissolved Twitter’s press operations; The Independent’s questions to Twitter’s press email autoreply with a poop emoji.

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