Looking for information? There’s plenty out there, every day, printed and broadcast and cablecast and posted and streamed.
Looking for good journalism? Different deal.
That, at least, is the word from Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive of National Public Radio, who spoke to the Akron Press Club on Thursday.
Knell took his NPR job in December after more than a decade at Sesame Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, Electric Company and other programs and related projects. (Former Kent State University President Carol Cartwright, an NPR board member, co-led the committee that picked Knell, and his talk was in the KSU Student Center.) He still draws on his Sesame experience to illustrate many points. But he appears to have some clear ideas of what NPR needs to be, where it should improve and what it most decidedly is not.
Part of that vision involves offering good journalism. Again, while there is a lot of information available, much of it involves commentary, material without weight and statements that have not been fact-checked.
Knell opted instead for journalism, which he defined after his talk as this: “It’s about reporting. It’s about fact-checking. It’s about editors editing [reporters’] work, It’s about seeking out the most accurate portrayal of events.”
He particularly praised NPR’s foreign coverage, an area where he saw other news organizations cutting back. And, in the Q&A after his speech, he referred to nightly cable-news programming being more like opinion pages than reporting. “I’m not necessarily criticizing cable news for what they do,” he said. “I think it’s important to have strong opinions on both sides, being able to argue about that stuff. It’s built really on a business model, also, that works for them. We also need to remember that, when some big event happens, people ... are not going run over for an opinion about it. They’re going to want to know what happened.
“... I think that there’s millions of Americans that still want to have a civil civic dialogue. ... [Broadcast] network news operations still get multiples more viewers than cable news guys. You just don’t hear about them, So I think it’s important that maybe some of the leaders in our profession and political leaders take a bit of a bipartisan ‘calm down’ approach,” where politicians stop demonizing the media, and the media stop demonizing the politicians.
Of course, NPR has come in for its share of criticism for what some observers claimed was a political slant. Knell’s predecessor, Vivian Schiller, left the job after a little more than two years amid what NPR’s own reporting called “a series of controversies — including the termination of the contract of news analyst Juan Williams last October, followed by an undercover video sting by the conservative provocateur James O’Keefe III in March. An edited version of the video released by O’Keefe appeared to show NPR’s top fundraiser disparaging Republicans and tea party conservatives, though a closer review of the complete video showed many of those remarks were presented in a profoundly misleading way.”
Knell argued that one of the big myths about NPR is that the organization is “a bunch of liberals.” Another is that NPR is federally funded.
“NPR doesn’t get any federal money unless it applies for a specific grant from a federal department like anyone else can — whether it’s a university, Goodyear Tire & Rubber or American Airlines, as a federal contractor,” he said, “Federal monies that go to public broadcasting all are funded through stations, and they decide locally how to spend those dollars. ... These are local decisions that we don’t dictate.” And, he said, those decisions may be to put the money into local programming or shows from non-NPR groups.
As for the liberal-liberal-liberal issue, he said, “We are covering the spectrum. We have a lot of people [in the audience] who self-identify themselves as liberal, independent or conservatives. And there are a lot of conservatives. I have friends high up in the military. They are listening to National Public Radio more than anything else because they know we’re out there covering these complex issues in the theater of war, for instance, And they hold us, by the way, to a higher standard, so if we mess up a story, I get that call.”
But one of the areas where NPR should improve is its audience reach and range, and Knell has what he calls “four corners of diversity.” NPR needs to draw more on sources outside the Washington Beltway, he said. “There are a lot of smart people in northern Ohio and northern Texas and Michigan and other parts of the country who have something to say about these important national issues.”
Another is “a diversity around race/ethnicity as the demographics of America change. ... Those of you who have looked at the census data know how the changing landscape ethnically in our country is something we need to adapt to and embrace more in public radio.” In addition, he said, is “to diversify our political thought, that maybe we’re a little bit too conventional.” Admitting that he was not at NPR for the rise of either movement, Knell still said, “Maybe we didn’t cover the Occupy movement well enough, and maybe we didn’t cover the growth of the tea party well enough.”
Finally, there’s the challenge facing traditional media in general, whether it’s print, radio or TV: to get “a new generation of millennials” to join the audience. And that comes back to convincing people that NPR has something to offer amid the endless stream of information, that its reporting will illuminate the important issues.
“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “So this is a learning process. This is a process where young people are reverse-mentoring us.”
But NPR and other entities have to be willing to deconstruct themselves in the face of change. “The music industry ... had a long way of seeing that train, that digital train coming,” Knell said. “And they just didn’t want to stop their party. And they got smashed.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.