NPR Has a Diversity Problem

An open letter to Gary Knell, new chief of National Public Radio, on the diversity problem he faces.

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Dear Mr. Knell,

I've been impressed by your first steps to embrace diversity as the new boss of National Public Radio. Since your appointment was announced last week, you've said all the right things -- that diversity is important, that you also want to reach beyond your affluent listeners -- and you've even paid a visit to my favorite NPR show, Tell Me More.

I appreciate your efforts to set a new tone on this volatile topic after the nasty fallout that followed the clumsy exit of commentator Juan Williams early this year. The highly publicized incident left NPR with a tarnished image, seen by many as hypocritical in its tolerance of a variety of voices, and questionable when it came to giving people of color a significant role.

NPR created a powerful enemy with a public platform in Williams. Since his departure, he has lambasted NPR as a bastion of liberal ideological rigidity. He's written a book (Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate) and even shot a commercial for AOL extolling freedom of speech. While Williams was clearly hurt by his firing, Fox News rewarded him with a reported $2 million contract -- partly, I suspect, for his public apostasy.

But don't mistake the fiery exit of Williams as just a nasty personnel matter gone nuclear. His departure was a sad commentary on the monochromatic vision of many liberal institutions -- a disease that NPR has not escaped. Sometimes a conservative gets attention for saying or doing something that is obvious. Richard Nixon decided it was silly to pretend that communist China and its 1 billion people didn't exist. Gerald Ford admitted our defeat in Vietnam and cut our losses. And Williams says that National Public Radio has treated blacks poorly.

In my opinion, Ellen Weiss, the woman who fired Williams and later resigned for her poor handling of the incident, was a powerful example of the profound challenge you face at NPR. I only met Weiss once, about a decade ago, but I never forgot our conversation. We were chatting over hors d'oeuvres at a convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, the organization I helped create. "So what do you think of All Things Considered?" she asked, referring to the flagship NPR show she produced for many years. "I love the show," I admitted. "But why does it have to be so white?"

"But we have Juan Williams," she replied defensively. I almost choked on my stuffed mushroom. But since she was paying for the canapés, I politely let the discussion move on to other topics. How ironic that, a decade later, the symbol of her liberal credentials would cause her departure from the network.

Even back then, I immediately recognized the chasm between Weiss' classic liberal worldview and mine as a black journalist. For Weiss, having one visible black commentator, anomalously conservative, on NPR confirmed her liberal credentials and made her immune to questions about her commitment to diversity. It's a common form of arrogance among liberals, so sure of their ideological purity that they could not possibly be racist -- even if they manage institutions that are overwhelmingly white and where people of color have little clout and few decision-making roles.

NPR has long reflected that liberal myopia. As far back as 1993, the liberal watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting showed that NPR's guest list was overwhelmingly white and male and its views centric, and few on-air experts were black or women. In 2009 NABJ complained (pdf) that there was only one on-air black male personality on NPR -- Juan Williams. The network responded by hiring Keith Woods from the Poynter Institute as vice president for diversity issues. But few can discern a fundamental change in NPR's tone and approach since.

By contrast, I have a broader vision of a multihued NPR, with a range of voices and worldviews not often heard or seen on commercial radio and TV: conservative, liberal, radical, atheist, religious, African American, Latino, immigrant and Native American -- all in a glorious rainbow cacophony.

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