Slow Down, NPR: The Radio Powerhouse Has Caused Itself Major Headaches by Moving Too Quickly

By Potter, Deborah | American Journalism Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Slow Down, NPR: The Radio Powerhouse Has Caused Itself Major Headaches by Moving Too Quickly


Potter, Deborah, American Journalism Review


Who would have ever imagined needing to advise NPR to slow down? The public radio network has been known for many things since it launched four decades ago, but speed wasn't one of them. Lately, though, NPR has tripped up more than once because it moved too fast--a sign of troubled times at the radio news powerhouse.

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To their credit, NPR news managers moved quickly to apologize for one speed-driven mistake--the false report that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who had been shot at a constituent event in January, was dead. "In a situation so chaotic and changing so swiftly, we should have been more cautious," Executive Editor Dick Meyer wrote the following day on NPR's Web site. But NPR wouldn't have taken so much flak for being wrong if it had just followed its own policies.

NPR says it had two sources for the report that Giffords had been killed, but it failed basic journalism standards by not indicating where the information came from. Also, its sources didn't have firsthand knowledge. After learning that the congresswoman was alive and in surgery, NPR changed its story without mentioning the earlier report. That violated NPR's written promise to correct "significant errors in broadcast and online reports."

Errors committed while covering breaking news are regrettable but understandable. It's ironic, though, for them to happen at NPR. The network prides itself on context and quality, on the kinds of stories that take time to report and produce. Regular listeners say they tune to NPR primarily for a mix of news, in-depth reporting, opinion and entertainment, not for latest headlines, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

But NPR's troubles with speed haven't been confined to the air. When the network decided to fire Juan Williams from his part-time job as an analyst last fall, he got the word in a phone call. Apparently, NPR needed to cut him loose so quickly that his boss, Senior Vice President for News Ellen Weiss, decided a face-to-face meeting wasn't necessary. Never mind that two days had passed since Williams remarked on Fox News that flying with people "in Muslim garb" made him nervous. NPR called that comment a violation of its guidelines, even though Williams said it on another network.

Williams had long been a controversial figure at NPR, which had gone so far as to ask Fox not to mention his association with the radio network when he appeared on TV. But as a somewhat conservative black voice at a mostly white network, he also gave NPR cover against long-standing accusations of liberal bias. …

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