NPR’s Racial Blindness

Before Juan Williams was fired, NPR forced out Farai Chideya

The real problem with NPR firing analyst Juan Williams has nothing to do with the irreconcilable differences between the network and the commentator’s  differing political views.   The real problem is by firing Williams, NPR rid itself not only of his increasingly obvious preference for the Fox News style of punditry, but it also lost one of their most high-profile African-American staffers.

And it isn’t the first time.

Farai Chideya, author of several books including Don’t Believe the Hype:  Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans and former host of the NPR program, News & Notes posted on Facebook wondering whether she should write say about her former employer’s firing of  Williams.  In 2007,   NPR cancelled N&N.  Chideya had replaced Ed Gordon who had attempted to relaunch N&N after Tavis Smiley ended his radio program with the network.

“I am debating whether to write a piece on the Juan Williams controversy. So many dots, so few being connected,” Chideya wrote.

It isn’t only the job of a writer to write, but to encourage others to as well.    I interviewed Chideya last year for her first non-fiction book, Kiss the Sky, and asked her about NPR’s decision to cancel News & Notes.  She didn’t want to dwell on that messy break-up  but did say she had chosen to leave the show before it ended in part due NPR’s  refusal to let the program to cover the inauguration of President Obama.

Chideya is somebody who knows about the racial skeletons are rattling around in NPR’s closet.  I understand her reluctance to go public with that information, but as James Baldwin said, “The price one pays for pursing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side”  and journalism in all its forms indeed has a very ugly side.   For all the cries from conservatives on how “liberal” the news media is, little is ever said about how overwhelmingly White, male and entrenched journalism is.

I answered Chideya’s open question with a suggestion.

Even before Juan got greased (deservedly or not), there was the horrendous way NPR fumbled the “too black/too strong” News and Notes program. I loved N&N and NOTHING has taken its place.

You have a unique insight that would add some much-needed context to the story.  Right now it’s being spun as liberal NPR messing up and conservative Fox pouncing on them.   The real situation is much more involved than the usual battle lines.

I like NPR, but I do not love it and one reason I do not is the lack of racial diversity in its nearly lily White, upper middle class programming.

19 hours later, Chideya’s article appeared in The Huffington Post:

If NPR had such clear concerns over how Juan Williams fit into their organization, in the amorphous role of “news analyst,” then they had an opportunity to let him go a long time ago. They could have decided he didn’t fit their needs, and moved on in a less polarized time. But by firing him now, in this instance, after years of sitting uncomfortably with his dual roles on NPR and Fox, they made a few crucial errors. They chose to fire him for doing what he has done for years… be a hype man for Bill O’Reilly. Why now? And they also showed tone-deaf communication with member stations by firing Williams during a pledge drive season.

Juan Williams pointedly said in his comments after the firing that he was the only black man on-air at NPR…. and not a reporter at that. Guest hosting on Fox, he also called himself a “loyal employee” of NPR, and implied the network was run by a “far-left mob.” (If so, I didn’t meet any in my four years at NPR. It’s run by a Beltway cohort, perhaps, but not “far-left.”) Do I think NPR fired him because he is black? No. Do I think NPR kept Williams on for years, as the relationship degraded, because he is a black man? Absolutely. Williams’ presence on air was a fig-leaf for much broader and deeper diversity problems at the network. NPR needs to hire more black men in house on staff as part of adding diverse staff across many ethnicities and races. It also needs, broadly, a diversity upgrade that doesn’t just focus on numbers, but on protocols for internal communication. Among the revelations in this incident is that the Vice President of News fired Williams by phone without giving him the opportunity to come into the office and discuss it.

After I was let go from hosting an African-American issues show at NPR, I walked away relatively quietly, though with a series of questions about how power was allocated and shared at the network, and whether diversity truly mattered to management. Although the focus right now is on whether NPR should be defunded (God no!), I would like to see a little more light shine on how NPR deals with diversity. It has a new diversity czar, Keith Woods, and I hope he is empowered to look at the issue broadly and respected by management.

This country needs NPR, now more than ever. But it needs an NPR and media, broadly, that are adventurous rather than expedient when it comes to reporting on a divided America, and cultivating the most diverse staff, and audience.

"Tell Me More" isn't heard on either of the two stations carrying NPR programming in Columbus.

To which I must add,  NPR is sorely lacking in both a diverse staff and audience.

Chideya does a excellent job of pointing out how  NPR’s real problem is a general cluelessness or shoulder-shrugging disinterest in promoting color-blind programming.  Of course, Sarah Palin, Jim DeMint, Bill O’ Reilly and all the other right-winger blabbermouths don’t give a damn about NPR’s pathetic lack of ethnic diversity.  They’re just grateful for an opportunity to talk up the idea of defunding NPR.

I listen to NPR, but  have not scratched my name on a check to support my local public radio station and I have no intention to.  In part.  because I’m still ticked  over how NPR whacked News & Notes and  plus, WOSU, the local affiliate doesn’t carry Tell Me Morehosted by Michelle Martin.  They do carry “Car Talk” and every Saturday night turn over their air to “The Bluegrass Ramble” but neither one of those shows quite fill my wish for programming with a specific appeal to African-Americans.

Amy Alexander, a former News &Notes commentator and an editor and producer with Tell Me More in 2007,  responded to my plea to Chideya saying,  “The local stations are managed by folks who can be, shall we say, reluctant to alter their mix of local & NPR-produced shows…..most especially if the NPR produced shows have a decidedly brown or young theme. So the local station GM is not required to take any new programming made at HQ in DC, or anywhere else, they are “encouraged” to schedule shows like N&N and TMM but I do not know the extent of any arm twisting that takes place. Thus, N&N died on the vine and TMM does not air in several key markets. You say you “like NPR,” but don’t love it. You represent part of the demo the network needs to grow — and fast– yet they can’t undo the internal cultural and systemic stuff that limits their ability to move the needle consistently and w innovation. TMM is a fantastic program but I do fret a bit about its future….”

I can hear TMM online, but the two local radio  stations, WOSU and WCBE, carrying NPR programming apparently don’t consider  Tell Me More worth picking up.  That  is reason enough for me to keep my checkbook shut when they hit their listeners up for cash.   My problem with NPR goes beyond Williams being fired.  He landed in higher profile and better paying gig so the hell with him.  I’m not feeling at all charitable to NPR when they have their hand out for money but offer little to nothing in the way of programming that is specifically directed toward my tastes and concerns.

For their part, NPR stumbles on this p.r. nightmare created by their own arrogance and ineptness.   Alicia Shepard, NPR’s ombudsman defended the firing of Williams and denied there was any racial angle to the dismissial, “I fear some will look for racial motivations in NPR’s decision to fire Williams, who is African-American and one of the few black male NPR voices.  It’s not about race.   It’s also not about free speech, as some have charged.”

Shepard needs to climb down out of her ivory tower.  When NPR cans its only African-American on-air analyst, whacks News & Notes because they didn’t know how to promote it and wouldn’t support it and allows Michelle Martin’s program to languish in obscurity it is exactly about race and how poorly NPR handles it.

When I’m looking for something that touches me as an African-American, a new season of A Prarie Home Companion don’t get it.