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WUNC's semantic headache 

Is the word "rights" political? Well, it is now. In trying to avoid making a political statement, WUNC radio has plunged into a politically charged semantic debate. Ever since the nonprofit organization Ipas announced its disagreement with the station over the language of its underwriting announcement last month, news of the controversy has spread nationally, drawing outrage from pro-choice groups, free speech advocates and other progressives. Last week, Ipas pulled its underwriting support from the station, a $1,680 per month contribution in exchange for five underwriting announcements per week in prime news rotation, reaching an average of 280,000 listeners. Ipas estimates it contributed $14,000 to the station in all.

Ipas is a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that protects women's reproductive health and rights at home and abroad. That precise description of the group was broadcast in underwriting announcements on WUNC from February through September. But WUNC station manager Joan Siefert Rose says it never should have gone on the air. "It was a mistake on our part," she says. As the election approached, Ipas changed the announcement to draw listeners to policy information on its Web site; that announcement did not include "rights." When Ipas asked to restore the old language after the election, a red flag went up at the station.

The station's internal review process determined that the term "reproductive rights" could not be broadcast in Ipas' underwriting announcement, Siefert Rose says, because it constitutes "advocacy language," which goes against Federal Communications Commission guidelines. So it dropped the word "rights" from the message. "It has nothing to do with what Ipas does or whether it's a worthwhile organization," Siefert Rose says. "This is all about being a good steward of our FCC license. WUNC is a non-commercial broadcaster, and there are many restrictions on how we can acknowledge donors to the station."

"We feel the station took an unnecessary step and that they have been unduly cautious," says Ipas President and CEO Elizabeth Maguire. "We think this is a reflection of what seems to be an increasingly difficult political climate where self-censorship is occurring."

Accusations that WUNC is censoring free speech rankle Siefert Rose. "This does not affect our news department, and it does not affect our public affairs department," she says. "People who have interpreted this to mean that we are clamping down on our editorial content--that's not correct."

Was the threat of FCC action real? National Public Radio's former general counsel says no.

"It seems to me like that's a pretty neutral description of the organization's activities," says Ernest Sanchez of the original Ipas announcement. "It does not strike me as a statement of advocacy." Sanchez, whose Washington law practice represents public radio stations, says the law makes it clear that it's the station's prerogative whether to accept underwriting from any supporter. "Public radio stations are completely free to take it or leave it." FCC rules also give stations wide discretion over the language. "It has to disclose who has provided the money, but the law doesn't require anything more than the bare disclosure." Calls to action and promotional language are prohibited by the FCC.

But Sanchez says he knows of no case in which the FCC has objected to language used in an underwriting message for an advocacy organization on a public radio station. "Based on what has been said publicly," Sanchez says, "I don't understand the basis for their expressed concern that the original phrase would run afoul of the FCC rules. I appreciate and recognize their right to decide as they have, but I don't think they have articulated a very clear basis for their decision making."

Ipas' decision came after weeks of discussions in which Siefert Rose tried to offer alternative language. In eight out of 10 cases, the station and the donor will work together to "craft a message that will meet our broadcast standards," Siefert Rose says. "We did discuss ways for Ipas to discuss what they do that included 'whose mission is to provide women control over their reproductive health.' We really tried to make an effort to describe their work. We were not interested in trying to misrepresent their work."

Despite good faith effort on both sides, Maguire says, "We feel very strongly that we can't compromise our principles here. We see this not as advocating or calling for action. From our standpoint, 'reproductive rights' is half of our mission. That's what we've been doing for the last 30 years."

A statement on the group's Web site, www.ipas.org, has garnered more than 900 signatures of support. A coalition of 22 national women's groups released a statement criticizing the station's decision. "The decision denies Ipas the ability to accurately describe their work and their mission," read the statement, which was signed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, among others.

But Maguire says Ipas does not want others to follow suit. "We're not asking others to withdraw their support from WUNC, because it does provide a very important service to this community."

Many public radio stations no longer accept underwriting announcements from advocacy groups, says Siefert Rose; controversies like this are one reason. But the station wants to offer a venue for local advocacy groups, she says. "Raleigh-Durham is a pretty small media market, and frankly, besides the Independent and WUNC, there are not too many venues for nonprofits to get the word out."

She adds that her caution is a result of the awkward role stations have of interpreting guidelines that are far from clear. "They don't say in advance whether a particular challenge will come," she says, citing the cautious decision of ABC affiliates not to air Saving Private Ryan on Veteran's Day for fear of being cited for broadcasting violent content.

"So I think the issue here for Ipas and for others is whether the phrase 'reproductive rights' constitutes political language," Siefert Rose says. "And it's a gray area. It's not crystal clear whether it would."

"I feel like WUNC made the right decision," says Michael Brader-Araje, a member of WUNC's community advisory board and chair of its capital campaign. His family foundation has been a longtime sponsor of WUNC--and of Planned Parenthood. He says he understands the disagreements pro-choice groups have with the station's decision. But he thinks the anger is misdirected. "I think that people are upset about the fact that women's reproductive rights connotes political meaning, and they're more upset than they are about WUNC."

What does the term "reproductive rights" mean? Maguire says it's not a euphemism for abortion rights. "It refers to the rights of men and women to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children" as well as "the rights of men and women to make reproductive decisions free of discrimination, coercion and violence." Ipas works in 40 different countries with differing attitudes toward birth control, abortion, sterilization and fertility treatment. So the application of "reproductive rights" can differ widely, she says.

But Brader-Araje says people who don't acknowledge the politics of the term are "kidding themselves." "The reality is, it is politically charged and that's the way it is in this climate," he says. "I don't see how we as listeners can reasonably ask (WUNC) to take a political stand." As an abortion rights supporter, Brader-Araje says he finds the dispute frustrating. "To me it all feels like a circular firing squad," he says. "This is not the right battlefield for Ipas to be fighting on. From a purely political perspective, is it any wonder that Democrats and the pro-choice movement are taking a step backward when we focus on the minutiae like this?"

Furthermore, he recommends that the station no longer accept underwriting from advocacy groups. "The station is trying its best to provide a public service to the community, but if it's going to take this kind of flack where the station is forced to justify its underwriting guidelines to the community, it's not worth it," he says. "Their job is to deliver the news, period."

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