New NPR President Gary Knell made an appearance on their afternoon talk show Talk of the Nation on Friday (his first day) to give the appearance of transparency and responsiveness and to build morale after scandals such as the Juan Williams firing and the deeply embarrassing Muslim Brotherhood sting video, which led to several firings.
Knell just strained credulity beyond the breaking point by claiming NPR is not an advocacy organization, but a network of "fairness and accuracy and honesty," and it's "probably barred by our charter." It's correct that the founding Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 called for objectivity and balance in "all programming of a controversial nature," but NPR has followed that legal language about as seriously as Bill Clinton has upheld his marital vows. One might say this is a promising rhetorical start -- until you listen daily to the product right now.
Talk Of The Nation host Neal Conan, the typical soft-spoken bearded liberal, inquired of the new boss:
NEAL CONAN: Your background is not in journalism, but I have to ask you a journalistic question which arises from that call. A lot of listeners would like NPR to take advocacy positions on things like nuclear winter or global climate change or other issues. Does a news organization threaten its journalistic reputation if it takes up advocacy?
KNELL: Well, I don't think we should be, as an organization, taking up advocacy. And, in fact, I think it's probably barred by our charter, so -- and the law, I think, which founded NPR. So it's really about fairness and accuracy and honesty in reporting so that our audience can make up their own minds and decide which issues they want to advocate on. That's really the role of public radio.
This question came after the caller Peter from Berkeley, and his panic over the present global emergency: "If I were president of NPR, I would aggressively promote more public awareness of the real and present danger of nuclear winter, per Alan Robock's shocking and informative comment in Nature magazine last May that new climate models show that it would be far, far, far fewer actual explosions that could trigger this, and the public has an emergency right and need to know." He wanted a global partnership and "proactive citizen participation" with "Radio Russia, Radio India, Radio China, and Radio Africa" to avoid the global danger.
A caller named Kelly complained NPR wasn't letting its employees "wholly participate" in politics, as in NPR's edict that employees not attend Jon Stewart's liberal "Rally for Sanity." Again, Knell said he wanted to avoid the perception of bias:
KELLY: Hi. I was curious about your outlook on the restrictions for employees of - on political activism, because, as a schoolteacher, I felt like some of the rules that I encountered within the system seemed to tell me that, while I was teaching students to be good, civic-minded people, I was limited myself outside of my job to wholly participate in my own community. And I feel like that's somewhat what NPR is doing to their employees by not allowing them to fully participate in the system in which they're reporting on.
KNELL: Well, it's a really good question. And, look, it's - I guess I approach this - we are, in addition to our music and cultural programming, primarily a news organization. And I think the important thing here is that our audience does not feel that we are promoting a political agenda. So these questions come in whether there is going to be an impression of a political agenda if reporters, journalists or producers are also advocating political positions.
And I think part of joining a news organization is the need, I think, to present a fair and balanced view and not have that sacrificed in some way, where people can perceive bias.
Now, that's the goal, and I think, you know, there's a lot of gray areas that fit in that I can't prejudge. But that's really what you want, I think, to protect, which is about the integrity of the news organization, so that we are presenting information to the American people and they can make up their own minds about which way they want to go on an issue.
Kelly followed up with the closet NPR allowed to a question about NPR's turbulent recent past. (The question was so gentle and nebulous that a skeptic might wonder if the caller was carefully pre-screened):
KELLY: What do you think about the judgments that were made prior to you coming onto NPR?
KNELL: Well, yeah. I can't really comment on those because I wasn't here and I don't really know the facts completely. [Yeah, right, this was not discussed in the interview process for a new CEO!] And, frankly, it's time, I think, for NPR to turn the page and move forward, and we'll take them as they come, as they will come. And we'll hopefully make the right calls.
When asked about conservative opposition to taxpayer funding -- by the NPR host, not by a conservative caller of any kind -- Knell predictably pledged to vacuum up every tax dollar they can suck out of our wallets:
CONAN: The Senate, controlled by Democrats, put funding for public broadcasting - not just radio, but TV - back into the budget this year after it was cut by the House of Representatives. It eventually survived. But one of the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, says PBS, NEH and NEA are wonderful things that we can no longer afford. The - Newt Gingrich, the other current frontrunner, has said - well, he tried to cut public broadcasting back in '94 as speaker of the House. So do you feel that this is something that can be counted on in the future? Are you planning for a future that does not include federal funding?
KNELL: Well, look, I think you've got to look at all these things, and even the private funding is susceptible to headwinds in terms of economic pressures on people, on companies, on foundations and other things. So public funding is no different, and it's not - I'm not going to count on anything. I think we can't take anything for granted, Neal. I think we've got to push forward and make the best case we possibly can and, you know, really push for the best and put our best foot forward. That's all we can do, and work like heck to try to secure that funding.