NABJ Questions NPR’s Diversity Commitment

Richard Prince, Maynard Institute of Journalism Education, October 28, 2009

The National Association of Black Journalists has reacted to the firing of Greg Peppers, one of two black men in National Public Radio’s newsroom management, with a strongly worded letter questioning the network’s commitment to diversity.

“Who are the managers of color at NPR?” NABJ President Kathy Times and Vice President/Broadcast Bob Butler asked NPR’s president, Vivian Schiller.

“What is NPR doing to recruit and groom African Americans for positions in management? Of the 68 members on your corporate team and behind-the-scenes staff, only eight are people of color:

* “4 African Americans,

* “2 Hispanic Americans,

* “1 Iranian American

* “1 American from South Asia.

“That translates to about 12 percent. Your organization benefits from listener support, corporate donations and tax dollars from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and should reflect the diversity of the community you serve. The minority population of the United States is approximately 32 percent.”

Peppers, a 22-year NPR veteran who supervised NPR’s newscast unit, was fired on Oct. 16 and escorted out of its Washington headquarters.

It was less than 24 hours after NPR hosted NABJ at the building for a program featuring CBS correspondent Byron Pitts, and the same day that Walt Swanston turned in her resignation as NPR’s director of diversity management, citing health reasons.

Peppers, 52, has not spoken publicly about his dismissal, and NPR spokeswoman Anna Christopher told Journal-isms [the name of Prince’s column] then, “We don’t comment on [an] employee’s reasons for departure or any other personnel matters.”

Christopher said on Wednesday that Schiller, who became NPR’s chairman and CEO 10 months ago, had not yet received NABJ’s letter but planned to respond. NABJ spokesman Abraham Mahshie said the letter was mailed on Monday.

“Mr. Peppers’ firing comes 10 months after NPR dismissed Next Generation Radio creator Doug Mitchell, who has trained scores of young journalists, including many African Americans, for jobs in the broadcasting industry,” the letter noted.

It also quoted a statement from the NPR Web site: “Diversity is a fundamental part of everything we do at NPR, and of our ability to offer relevant news, culture, and entertainment programming to an increasingly diverse public. Diversity is a cornerstone of our recruitment, programming, and talent development initiatives.”

The NABJ leaders said, “It is NABJ’s belief that actions speak much louder than your words. It is not enough to provide internships for young people or hire them into entry-level positions. Diversity must also be reflected among the managers who decide what news gets covered and who gets to cover it.”

The association then offered itself as a resource.

NABJ this year honored Michele Norris, a co-host of NPR’s popular newsmagazine “All Things Considered,” as its Journalist of the Year at its summer convention. But for the first time in years, NPR did not broadcast any shows from the convention, citing financial restraints.

African American men, particularly, have had a checkered history in the NPR corporate culture. The network once had an African American chief executive, Delano Lewis, who served from 1994 to 1998, and an African American vice president of information and news, Adam Clayton Powell III, who joined in 1987 but left in 1991.

Blair Walker IV of USA Today wrote in 1993 of Powell’s moves to create more diversity at NPR: “Among other things, displeasure with Powell’s efforts prompted ‘racist comments about new (minority) hires before they even arrived,’ he says.”

A number of African American men on-air, ranging from former hosts Tavis Smiley and Ed Gordon and reaching back to Sunni Khalid, the former Cairo bureau chief who in 1997 filed a $2 million discrimination suit against the network, have also had issues with NPR. Khalid and NPR reached a settlement in 2003.

Schiller told the Washington Business Journal last week that, “If we don’t have diversity in the newsroom, we don’t have the right minds working on how to best serve that audience,” Tierney Plumb of the Business Journal reported. “What do I really know about the African American community as a white woman? So that’s a big area of focus.”

Christopher said after Swanston’s resignation that Schiller “has selected a diverse group of staff to join her and members of the executive team in developing strategic goals and action plans around diversity in recruitment and retention; our work environment; our programming/content; and our audience.”

Peppers’ departure left Keith W. Jenkins, supervising senior producer for multimedia, as the sole African American man in NPR newsroom management. Jenkins joined NPR last year after taking a buyout from the Washington Post, where he was multimedia director.

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