Driving home yesterday I tuned in to WUNC to hear some of the NPR China coverage and was struck by something else. Referring to health news coverage at WUNC, the station thanked the "Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation for their support of WUNC's health coverage."
I was quite taken aback. Isn't it a huge conflict of interest to have the largest health insurance company in the state sponsoring health coverage on a public news outlet that routinely reaches 250,000 people in North Carolina? Can WUNC faithfully report on the campaign to guarantee 100% of kids in NC access to an affordable health plan if one of their major sponsors on health news coverage has a huge financial interest in the outcome of the debate – and has quietly deep-sixed legislative efforts to expand health coverage to all kids?
What about the excellent coverage WUNC engaged in over the past decade the two times nonprofit NC Blue Cross made extraordinarily controversial moves to become a for-profit company? If NC Blue decides to engage in similar behavior again, will WUNC be too fatally compromised to report on this critical issue?
Finally, I have no doubt Capitol Reporter Laura Leslie will not shy away from telling it like it is about Blue in the General Assembly – as she does here in her blog – or the continued great reporting of Rose Hoban on all issues health, but what about the editors and other powers that be back at the station? Will there be pressure to change what stories are reported on in the future if they involve Blue?
I just don't see how the answer to the above questions can now be anything other than a disappointing "yes."
And, before I get jumped all over, here are two points to keep in mind. First, while businesses and some nonprofits often generally sponsor the work of the station and get taglines that help their name recognition, they are rarely – if ever – identified as sponsoring news coverage of their own business area. Imagine the outcry if WUNC was thanking "NC's poultry industry for sponsoring our coverage of working conditions at NC chicken plants."
Second, don't give me any guff that the NC Blue Cross Foundation isn't wholly controlled as an unofficial PR subsidiary of NC Blue Cross itself, despite any pretensions of independence. Blue CEO Bob Greczyn is also Chair of the foundation board and the board is unabashedly Blue:
Our Board of Directors is comprised of executive-level employees within Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, in addition to one medical community representative who also serves on the BCBSNC corporate Board of Trustees. Bob Greczyn, President and Chief Executive Officer of BCBSNC, serves as our Chairman.
WUNC should reject NC Blue's donations for health coverage as fatally compromising their ability to fairly and accurately report on an increasingly critical issue for most North Carolinians – the quality and affordability of healthcare.