Who would have ever imagined needing to advise NPR to slow down? The public radio network has been known for many things since it launched four decades ago, but speed wasn’t one of them. Lately, though, NPR has tripped up more than once because it moved too fast — a sign of troubled times at the radio news powerhouse.
To their credit, NPR news managers moved quickly to apologize for one speed-driven mistake — the false report that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot at a constituent event in January, was dead. “In a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious,” Executive Editor Dick Meyer wrote the following day on NPR’s Web site. But NPR wouldn’t have taken so much flak for being wrong if it had just followed its own policies.
NPR says it had two sources for the report that Giffords had been killed, but it failed basic journalism standards by not indicating where the information came from. Also, its sources didn’t have firsthand knowledge. After learning that the congresswoman was alive and in surgery, NPR changed its story without mentioning the earlier report. That violated NPR’s written promise to correct “significant errors in broadcast and online reports.”
Errors committed while covering breaking news are regrettable but understandable. It’s ironic, though, for them to happen at NPR. The network prides itself on context and quality, on the kinds of stories that take time to report and produce. Regular listeners say they tune to NPR primarily for a mix of news, in-depth reporting, opinion and entertainment, not for latest headlines, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
But NPR’s troubles with speed haven’t been confined to the air. When the network decided to fire Juan Williams from his part-time job as an analyst last fall, he got the word in a phone call. Apparently, NPR needed to cut him loose so quickly that his boss, Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, decided a face-to-face meeting wasn’t necessary. Never mind that two days had passed since Williams remarked on Fox News that flying with people “in Muslim garb” made him nervous. NPR called that comment a violation of its guidelines, even though Williams said it on another network.
Williams had long been a controversial figure at NPR, which had gone so far as to ask Fox not to mention his association with the radio network when he appeared on TV. But as a somewhat conservative black voice at a mostly white network, he also gave NPR cover against long-standing accusations of liberal bias.
You’d think a decision to cut ties with Williams would have been handled with extreme care. NPR made such a mess of it that it turned into a PR nightmare. Tens of thousands of listeners e-mailed complaints. And NPR hit yet another speed bump when CEO Vivian Schiller said Williams should have kept his feelings between himself and “his psychiatrist or his publicist.” That sounded to some like a suggestion that Williams was mentally unbalanced. Schiller later apologized for speaking — guess what? — too hastily.
An independent inquiry completed in January found that Williams’ firing was lawful. But “because of concerns regarding the speed and handling of the termination,” Weiss, a 28-year NPR veteran, was forced out. Schiller got a slap on the wrist in the form of a lost bonus.
And that wasn’t the only fallout from the Williams case. Republicans on Capitol Hill seized on it as evidence of what they see as NPR’s leftward tilt. “The only free speech NPR supports is liberal speech with which they agree,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who introduced a bill to end federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, wrote in an op-ed.
A cutoff wouldn’t hurt NPR directly because it gets little of that money. But about a third of the network’s revenue comes from fees paid by member stations that do receive government funds. So NPR was forced to fight back, with Schiller warning that defunding would be devastating.
While circling the wagons against external attacks, NPR brass also took criticism from within. Weiss supporters were furious that she was thrown under the bus, which some saw as capitulation to conservative critics. “It’s bad for public radio and bad for everything we believe in as journalists,” said Ira Glass, host of “This American Life.”
As its flagship program, “All Things Considered,” turns 40 this spring, NPR should be celebrating its position as a respected national news organization, one that managed to almost double its audience in the past 10 years while TV news and newspapers lost much of theirs. Instead, it’s having to deal with the embarrassing consequences of its own ineptitude.
So here comes that unsolicited advice: Slow down, NPR. Get back to doing what you do best — producing the solid, thoughtful journalism your listeners expect. Complete the ongoing review of your ethics policy, clean up the mess and move forward.
Just don’t do it too quickly.
Originally published in American Journalism Review, March 2011