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