NPR's New CEO Wants to Fix Its Liberal Problem

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The word "tumultuous" stands out in the statement from NPR board chairman Dave Edwards about the appointment of Gary Knell as the network's new chief executive officer. "As C.E.O. of Sesame Workshop for more than a decade," Edwards said in a statement on Sunday, "[Knell] has led a large, complex organization through a tumultuous media environment, helping it grow by providing innovative, engaging content in new and creative ways." Knell's experience guiding a media company through tumult will definitely come in handy. Over the past few months, NPR has had its fair share of controversy, both small scandals and larger issues that eventually led Knell's predecessor Vivian Schiller to resign. However as some have pointed out, NPR's problems go beyond controversy, and some wonder if he's got the chops to improve the network's journalism.

It's time to "depoliticize" NPR, Knell told the Associated Press:

I think NPR needs to do a better job of telling a story. It's about journalism, it's about news. It's not about promoting one political agenda or another.

Good idea, but shouldn't an actual journalist tackle that problem? wonders Megan Garber at Harvard's Nieman Lab blog:

The selection, announced yesterday evening, came as a surprise to many--partly because, just this Friday, we heard how long and labor-intensive NPR's CEO search has been, and partly because, Sesame Street not being journalism in any traditional sense, Knell wasn't on most media watchers' radar prior to the big announcement.

Things we know so far: Knell has a background in journalism and legislative affairs. He wants to "depoliticize" public radio. He shuns the serial comma. What we know less about, though--for the moment, at least--is Knell as a digital leader, as the person who will oversee NPR's digital initiatives.

NPR's political slant is a perception problem, reports Brian Stelter at The New York Times:

NPR, formerly known as National Public Radio, has the benefit of tens of millions of devoted weekly listeners and a robust Web presence. But it is threatened by, among other things, the prospect of funding cuts, power struggles between the organization and its member stations across the country, and the perception that some of its programming has a liberal political bent.

If so, the network could've found a more aggressive CEO, argues press critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen. "NPR has a new CEO: he's the head of Sesame Street," he tweeted Sunday. "Seems like a 'safety first' decision, which is typical of NPR's board." Rosen also took Stelter to task on Google+:

Can you be "threatened" by a "perception?" I guess maybe you can. But if you can, then I would say that NPR is equally threatened by 1.) the perception that it can be rolled or intimidated, especially after forcing its last CEO to resign in part because right wing trickster James O'Keefe pulled a culture war stunt that worked, and 2.) the perception that it's increasingly a he said, she said, "safety first" news organization that tends to quote both sides and leave it there.

Knell nevertheless knows Washington, says David Kaplan at paidContent:

Aside from his deep ties to public broadcasting, Knell has one other feature on his resume that makes him appear to be a natural choice for NPR right now, especially given the tense political climate in Washington, DC. He once served as counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Governmental Affairs Committees and worked in the California State Legislature and Governor’s Office. He's also currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.

That probably won't make him seem any less "elitist" to populist politicians gunning for the small portion of taxpayer funding NPR gets, 10 percent of which comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But having diplomatic skills could become important during the next round of Congressional budget talks, as NPR will surely be a target once again. 

He's our "best shot," tweeted Vivian Schiller of her replacement:

New NPR CEO Gary Knell is an experienced leader, a good man and a friend. Best shot to liberate public radio from untenable reliance on federal dollars.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.