Sometimes things get set up in one way and no one ever changes them because they think someone who we never met said it had to be that way. When we founded National Public Radio, we wanted a way of linking together the stations and creating a common production center, and, if we pooled the money that we could get together, it might give us some news programming. The result of that was All Things Considered. We were the board, because who else would be? It was our plan, our money, our efforts with the CPB to put funding behind it, and no one knew what it was.
Now, NPR is one of the pre-eminent news organizations in the United States and you could and should look at how you advance that vision and mission. You would want NPR to have the strongest board members that they could have, the people who can stand up—independently, they have nothing to gain. People who have no personal interest in it and who can open doors and get into see key people and say, “This is what we are trying to achieve and we need your help doing it.” Or they can look at the organization and say, “Well, I know that the leader is a great friend of all the stations, but frankly the world has changed and we need someone stronger. We need someone with a bigger picture, bigger vision.” What I found over time is that the stronger the board, and the harder they push you, the further you go.
It is way past time to rethink the governance; the issues that stations are afraid of can easily be dealt with by contracts. Get out of the way, set the contracts in place to protect the interests of those who founded NPR, and let it go.
How do you think NPR handled the James O’Keefe sting video and then the “ousting” of CEO Vivian Schiller?
I’m a great fan of Vivian’s. But I think she came into a situation where, for whatever reason, she didn’t have the time or the inclination to see what internal issues were facing the management of NPR. I think the board had a much more detailed description of the issues within NPR that allowed things like the Juan Williams firing to occur and that perhaps—even though it was “gotcha” journalism—meant it did not have the kind of research that would trigger a caution on that sting.
I am afraid that it had less to do with Vivian than it did with the long-festering issues within NPR that probably go back through several of her predecessors and that should have been addressed. Governance should have seen it, should have done something about it, and should not have put a new CEO in that position.
Fortunately, I don’t know. I wasn’t involved, but I know that there was a major examination of the internal processes of NPR.
How do they move forward?
NPR needs to do what it’s doing—which is keep it’s journalism at the absolute peak. And they need to have self-examination to make sure that their anchors, their story selection, or any other way that bias is creeping in, isn’t. Then they need to let the public speak for them. And the public has been speaking for them. They are a news organization; they shouldn’t be doing anything in regard to public funding or mixing journalism and politics. That was one of my strong themes to Vivian from the day she came on the job: get rid of the lobbying organization. Don’t ever allow yourself to be called up to the Hill to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.
You often talk about the BBC as a benchmark. Why hasn’t the US been able to achieve what the Brits have in public media?
It hasn’t had a champion. The champion could be political or a lay-leader of some sort. Our federal funding in public radio hasn’t changed, in real dollars, since 1980. If you look at the budget for the BBC or the ABC in Australia, it dwarfs what we’re spending.
The American State Department put an unknown —but I suspect significant—amount of money into the BBC to help it deal with social media in Libya and Egypt. We seem to be willing to fund getting out the message in the name of democracy throughout the world but we have forgotten to look at what that means in our own country. We have taken for granted that Democracy is a solid ethic of the American people. It won’t be if we don’t tend to it.