NPR's First 40 Years: Glory and Mishaps


Chronicle Books

In the midst of last month's flap over NPR's firing of Juan Williams for his comments on Fox News about feeling "nervous" when he sees people in "Muslim garb" on planes, I received a copy of This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, published by Chronicle Books. It's clearly intended to celebrate the organization's anniversary, with essays, photos, and a CD of six "classic" broadcasts. The handsome book (priced at $29.95) must have been conceived to highlight the ascendancy of NPR (it has dropped National Public Radio in favor of the initials because of its enhanced presence on the Internet and mobile gadgetry) as one of the country's leading news providers. This coincidence of a self-congratulatory volume and a nasty dispute over the sacking of one of its better-known commentators is a reminder that, when things seem to be going well (and NPR has been on a great run), there is a tendency for something to go wrong, which keeps us from succumbing to hubris.

Summarily terminating Williams on the grounds that he had "crossed the line" of what was acceptable for an NPR analyst was a blunder. Everyone seems to agree that what he said was sincere but inept, and contributed to an ugly strain of prejudice against Muslims that Williams, who is black, should have had the sense to avoid. But the firing was abrupt and awkward, given the circumstances. The fact is that Williams and NPR have long had an uneasy relationship. When he first joined in the early 1990s, he served as a host of Talk of the Nation. That assignment must not have worked out, because Williams was handed an amorphous role as a senior correspondent and, over the years, seemed to be spending more time on Fox than on NPR itself.

Juan is a very talented writer. As the publisher of Times Books, I contracted with him for the biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, which was deservedly well received when it was published in 1998. Williams was also the author of the companion book to Eyes on the Prize, the superb PBS history of the civil rights movement. But at the Washington Post, where he wrote a column, Williams became controversial in 1991 because of his outspoken defense of Clarence Thomas at the height of the furor over the allegations that Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill. When Williams was fired at NPR, Bonnie Erbe, a columnist for AOL's Politics Daily, recalled that, shortly after the Thomas episode, Williams himself acknowledged that "the newspaper had disciplined him for what he called 'wrong' and 'inappropriate' verbal conduct toward woman staffers and he apologized to his colleagues." Williams soon left the Washington Post.

Juan now has a $2 million contract with Fox. And despite the embarrassment over this episode, NPR is justifiably proud of the achievements contained in This Is NPR: The First Forty Years. Overcoming obstacles time and again, NPR has emerged as a preeminent news organization. The attacks on NPR by John Boehner, the incoming Speaker of the House, and other conservative politicians and commentators are nothing new. Their threats are less formidable because the public support for public radio (the total audience is over 30 million) and the system's funding structure limit the risks of political interference. Even Newt Gingrich has come around. "On my way to work, I listen to NPR and appreciate it," he said in 2003. "NPR is a lot less to the left . . . or I've mellowed, or some combination of the two."

Today's NPR has never been more influential or successful, but one of the pleasures of the new book for a die-hard fan such as myself is the review of all the mistakes made along the way—the decision to pass on A Prairie Home Companion on the cockamamie management grounds that it was "elitist," and to say no to This American Life because, as Ira Glass puts it, he had "been a teenager there—it was hard to take me seriously." Both shows ended up on Minnesota-based Public Radio International, providing what amounts to a national competitor to NPR, although most listeners don't understand the difference. In 2004, NPR demoted Bob Edwards, who had been the host of All Things Considered and, from its launch, Morning Edition. He was immediately hired by XM Satellite Radio where he continues his inimitable style of interviewing. Fortunately, NPR also made many good decisions, to wit: Fresh Air, Car Talk, and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me among them.

The upheavals under way in journalism these days have underscored the role that NPR and the rest of public radio and its 897 stations have come to play in American life. The Williams issue is a momentary distraction, though not to be underestimated, given the 22,769 e-mails and hundreds of phone calls NPR's ombudsman received. The deeper question of how government policy should be reformed to take advantage of the evolution of public radio and television in the past forty years is the subject of the cover story by Steve Coll in the new issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Coll makes the case for a significant revision of what has been a market-dominated system for the media, which falls within the parameters of a major study now being concluded by the Federal Communications Commission. In the meantime, read This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, or give a copy to one of its legion of listeners.