In a letter to new NPR CEO Gary Knell, black journalists are again accusing NPR of being too danged white- both inside and out, saying the radio network has a "dulcet-toned narrative of all things white and comfortable."
The charges comes in an eloquent but damning letter to the new NPR honcho from Joel Dreyfuss, a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.
The issue won't go away, he writes, now just because Juan Williams is gone.
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.
Dreyfuss recounts meeting former CEO Ellen Weiss, who was eventually fired over the Williams mishegoss. It was at a party about 10 years ago; she asked him, "So what do you think of All Things Considered?" referring to the NPR show she produced for many years. "I love the show," he said. "But why does it have to be so white?"
"But we have Juan Williams," she replied defensively. Ouch. He almost choked on his stuffed mushroom.
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.
There have been a few hirings of black voices over the years: They installed a vice-president for diversity issues, as well as two black executives and one black correspondent after a 2009 meeting with the NABJ, a move black journalists called "better but not enough."
"But few can discern a fundamental change in NPR's tone and approach since." wrote Dreyfuss.
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.
His advice for the new guy at the popular, but troubled network:
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.
Besides the challenges to NPR's "conventional liberal thinking," there's always that other little thing:
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.