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The firing of Juan Williams at National Public Radio has created a storm of controversy – and well it should. Not simply because it was conducted so summarily, with such thinly-veiled animus, on what amounts to a pretext, apparently. Or even because it seems to call into question whether NPR wants to preserve a semblance of "breadth" and "balance" in today’s hyper-politicized news industry – a semblance tha has helped shield NPR from its long-standing critics on the right, and preserved its broader funding base.
Actually the firing reflects a much deeper problem within the organization and culture of NPR on the fundamental issue of race. Those who know NPR well know that it’s had a long and troubled history dealing with outspoken Black on-air personalities like Williams. And far more than other media organizations of its size and stature, NPR’s also consistently struggled – and largely failed – to embrace Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities internally, through diversity hiring in management, and externally, through more culturally relevant news programming.
In fact, despite its obvious success in reaching the broader commercial mainstream with flagship news programs like "All Things Considered," NPR largely remains the super-white, super-liberal, decidedly pro-feminist, holier-than-thou den of political "correctness" it was when it first splashed on the media scene three decades ago. And when faced with challenges – real or in this case, largely imagined – its insular senior white management has a bad habit of circling the wagons defensively, no matter what the cost to its reputation or funding.
I worked as a consultant to NPR in its prestigious "audience research" department for the length of 2006. I was the first outside consultant ever permitted to review years of internal NPR data profiling its audience, not just for its radio programming, but increasingly, for its new and heralded online platform, npr.org. I also was contracted to produce a series of environmental scan reports to alert senior management to emerging industry trends that could affect NPR’s funding and its standing in the radio industry. One of those issues was how to better reach the "non-White" audience.
The data on NPR’s listener base illustrates how shockingly White – and relatively affluent – that base still is. Despite having grown from a mere 9 million or so listeners in the 1990s to a whopping 25 million today, NPR still consistently appeals almost exclusively to White audiences. The 2006 data showed that only 6% of NPR news listeners were African-American, well less than half the percentage of Blacks in the general population. For Hispanics, the figure was an anemic 3% – all of them English-speakers, or at best bilingual. And nothing NPR has done since has done much, if anything, to move those numbers. NPR still offers no radio programming in Spanish, and even its popular online site remains English-only.
NPR senior planners, ever the good liberals, are well aware of these shortfalls – but exceedingly defensive about them. They’ve flirted with some remedies over the years, but never made much headway. In truth, the entire culture of NPR – with its embarrassing dearth of minorities in senior management, and none at all, zero, in audience research – has made progress highly unlikely. Partly as a result, NPR has had nothing but problems in recruiting and retaining Black on-air news personalities like Juan Williams dating to its short-lived experiment with the Tavis Smiley Show.
At first, bringing on the gregarious – and by mainstream standards – boisterous and edgy veteran of "Black" radio seemed like a bold stroke of genius. That is, until NPR’s white listeners started complaining that Smiley was too confrontational – or simply too "Black" – in the way that he spoke and thought. NPR soon found that some of its member stations were rebelling against placing Smiley’s show in slots that might offend its White audience. Smiley eventually quit in disgust, saying NPR had failed to support him and didn’t understand – and really didn’t care about – the nation’s Black radio audience. NPR’s experiments since then, including an equally short-lived attempt to hire a very moderate non-threatening Black replacement for Smiley, have completely fizzled. Smiley, meanwhile, has gone on to huge success and acclaim with his own political talk show on PBS.
Ironically, NPR has had past success – and significant success – with African-Americans – but not in its news and editorial division. The audience for NPR’s award-winning jazz music offerings is 33% Black, a source of great pride to NPR’s programming staff. But even in the music division, NPR hasn’t found a way to translate that success into a broader Black programming appeal, especially for younger Blacks who generally don’t tune in to jazz. If anything, NPR’s strides with jazz have tended to give the organization an exaggerated sense of security – and "relevance" – to African-Americans that has retard its ability to examine its programming style and standards – to say nothing of its internal hiring practices – more honestly.
All the more reason, one might think, that a Black journalist and commentator of Williams’ reputation and stature would be a treasured NPR asset. Williams, after all, isn’t some rookie star, like Smiley, in some measure was. He’s a former veteran Washington Post news reporter, the author of a stirring book on the civil rights movement, and a widely respected journalist with White and Black fans alike. Two other NPR commentators, Nina Totenberg and Mara Liasson, both white women, have, like Williams, also served as commentators for Fox News. And it’s true that both, like Williams, have come under pressure from NPR to sever their links to Fox, or at least, to not identify themselves so openly as NPR commentators while on-air at Fox. But neither has been subjected to the constant scrutiny – and second-guessing – that Williams has for making off-hand, occasionally pointed, but largely innocuous comments that apparently offended the die-hard liberal sentiments of some of NPR’s top brass.
Inevitably, then, the firing of Juan Williams touches upon the delicate issue of race – and the problems that hyper-white institutions seem to have in adjusting to people of color. Had Williams become, in effect, the classic "Uppity Negro," who didn’t know his "place" in the politically coded NPR "system." You might want to ask the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who suddenly stopped listening to NPR after Tavis Smiley went off the air. And the tens of thousands – some Black, some White, some NPR listeners, some not – who are currently deluging NPR with outraged phone calls and emails protesting Williams’ dismissal.
If nothing else, the firing Juan Williams on the eve of a far-right Republican takeover of Congress, and in the midst of an NPR fund-raising drive, has got to rank right up there in the annals of NPR insanity. Maybe CEO Diane Schiller should take her own advice to Williams and consult a psychiatrist? Or better yet, hire a real diversity trainer and have the entire NPR management take a good long look at itself.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.