Media Politics - An Open Letter to NPR

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by Jonathan Lawson

Dear Kevin Klose,

Let me congratulate you on National Public Radio's receipt of a $200 million bequest from the estate of Louise Kroc. As President and CEO of NPR, you must have been pretty tickled to get the word.

As someone who has spent years working in community radio and grassroots independent media (and as a past financial supporter of NPR affiliates WUNC-Chapel Hill, WBUR-Boston, and KUOW-Seattle), I thought I might be able to offer some helpful ideas about what you might do with all the cash.

The "P" is what makes NPR unique among national broadcast networks, at least rhetorically. NPR historians like to remind us that the May 1971 debut of All Things Considered featured on-the-street interviews with protesters at an anti-Vietnam war rally in D.C. as they were being beaten and mauled by police. NPR is justifiably proud of this early history of "going to where the silences are" in the words of broadcast journalist Amy Goodman. It's unfortunate, but certainly true, that NPR has gotten less edgy, less interested in risk-taking, and more conservative (or "centrist," or "non-partisan," to use the preferred euphemisms) over the years. By 2000, when Philadelphia police were beating and mauling protesters outside the Republican National Convention, NPR correspondent Steve Inskeep wasn't reporting from the streets. Rather, he was inside the convention, lamenting in detail that nothing newsworthy appeared to be happening there.

There may be lots of reasons for NPR's shift. The network's position as a respected national news outfit run by seasoned journalists, many of whom have moved back and forth between NPR and commercial networks, has brought a slick patina of beltway cynicism to the network's flagship programs. But I think many would suggest that the network's increasing reliance on corporate underwriting has had a pervasive, if generally indirect, influence on the stories and viewpoints selected for coverage on NPR's news programs.

Hopefully, this $200 million will take some of the pressure off, and you can afford to say 'no' to some of your more questionable advertisers - oops, I mean underwriters. For example biotech kingpin Archers Daniel Midland, or the Government of Kuwait (you have to admit, that 'Kuwait thanks America' bit on the Gulf War anniversary was kind of a lapse in judgement).

So here are some specific ideas about the $200 million.

Create funded 'desks' with journalists and assignment editors focused on socially important issues that sometimes fall through the cracks. Examples could include labor, poverty and homelessness, non-English speaking minority communities, criminal justice and incarceration, etc.

NPR especially needs more labor reporting. My local NPR station KUOW carries not one but two business programs (Marketplace and the Motley Fool). These programs appeal to wealthy, overwhelmingly white listeners - the same demographic which is catered to by the commercial networks. Where's the news and commentary on working families' issues, like successful organizing efforts, health care, privatization, and offshoring of American jobs?

This wouldn't cost any money, but while I'm on the subject - NPR should end its practice of refusing stories from independent reporting services such as the Workers Independent News Service (WINS) simply because the service is supported financially by unions or other interest groups.

Hire more people of color, and promote them into prominent on-air and managerial positions. Tavis Smiley is great, but his presence is confined to the narrow programming band of his own show. Plus, not many journalists can follow Smiley's career path (heading a national commercial network). The constitutionally sycophantic Juan Williams should have more company on All Things Considered.

I know you already outdo the "competition" in this regard, but NPR still needs additional foreign affairs correspondents, especially in hot spots - and they should be given freer reign, like the Independent's Robert Fisk in Iraq. Former NPR Israel correspondent Steve McNally has described, in the Columbia Journalism Review, how reporters living among people on one side of a conflict can come to identify with the lifestyle, fears and concerns of their immediate neighbors. We need fair, accurate reportage from a real variety of contexts. This is all the more important as the concept of embedding journalists seems to be expanding stateside, with the Miami police offering to embed reporters within its ranks during FTAA protests.

About journalistic principles: NPR employs a lot of great reporters. Many, though, especially the ones covering national affairs, seem a bit overly credulous and too reliant on official sourcing. Editorial concerns with appearing balanced have led to more on-air commentaries from right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, taking up airtime which could otherwise be used to Consider All Things. But I digress. Perhaps you could use part of the $200 million to pass around copies of the Poynter Institute's "Guiding Principles for Journalists."

Journalist David Barsamian wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of Public Broadcasting. Maybe you've read it? It's mostly about public television, but NPR comes in for some criticism as well. I asked David what he thought you should do with the $200 million, and he had a few good ideas as well, including waiving satellite fees for independent progressive producers, severing all ties with corporate advertisers, and "sacking all the on-air gasbags." He proposed that NPR distribute programs like CounterSpin, Alternative Radio, Democracy Now, Making Contact and Women's International News Gathering Service with the same vigor as you now push the flagship news programs, Fresh Air, Car Talk and the multiple game shows.

David commented also made a broader suggestion - that NPR take a cue from Martin Luther King's historic 1967 "Beyond Vietnam" speech, calling for "a true revolution of values." Is it too much to hope for that NPR could use this gift to cut some of the tethers that bind it to the corporate-influenced, D.C. beltway values that have eroded the independence and diversity of its news programming? I sincerely hope so, and I hope you and your fellow decisionmakers can share this vision.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey