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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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.

I imagine a news show that doesn’t treat the occasional story involving downtrodden African Americans, Hispanic Americans or poor people like a dutiful piece of foreign reporting before reverting to its dulcet-toned narrative of all things white and comfortable. I imagine an NPR that includes black and brown and female experts on the economy, ecology, energy, foreign affairs and everything else, instead of your standard bland diet of the same old tired voices that already pollute mainstream media.

Mr. Knell, those of us from the news media who have struggled for decades to diversify the storytelling stream could give you many examples of bosses who didn’t have the breadth of imagination — or courage — to embrace the model of America we saw, and that we lived every day. That hasn’t shaken my belief that no one group, gender, ethnicity, religion — or, yes, race — has a monopoly on the truth, insight or analysis.

So as you tackle your mountain of issues, I hope you’ll be brave enough not to fall into the trap of believing that your problem was Juan Williams. It wasn’t just that NPR was uncomfortable with a somewhat conservative voice; NPR has never been comfortable with black voices and brown voices and white voices that challenged conventional liberal thinking.

Williams’ great sin — and firing offense — was admitting that seeing Muslims on his plane made him nervous. Surely, he isn’t the only one who has had that feeling. He was just honest enough to say it — and on the conservative Fox Network — and while many of us would disagree with Williams, was it a fireable offense for a 10-year employee?

The bigger issue is not just whom you put on the air but who makes decisions about what is news and what isn’t, what’s important and what’s not, how long a story should be, how many resources should be assigned to cover this or that and where your foreign bureaus are located. In other words, you need to throw out the mental map that has always guided NPR and forge something new that is more inclusive, more innovative and more demanding of listeners as well as employees.

And that problem in Congress with NPR’s funding? It’s not new. Conservatives can always win cheap points by threatening NPR — until they find out that their constituents love the programs. I love NPR, too, but I also want it to be better, more exciting and a reflection of the America I live in. And you’d have a lot more clout with Congress if you grew your audience beyond its current narrow confines. Those less affluent blacks and browns you’re anxious to attract? They also vote.

Sincerely yours,

Joel Dreyfuss

Joel Dreyfuss is The Root‘s managing editor and a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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