On NPR, diversity, and responding to criticism

So, ABW wrote a post about NPR and their apparent lack of diversity and NPR responded. While I know that ABW is planning on discussing her own response, I read over the letter and was pretty much floored that a company that purports to need pledge money to survive would allow such a letter to be sent. It was certainly not the worst response to criticism that I’ve ever seen, but it definitely wasn’t the best.

Now, I’m sure most of you are going to be like, “What the heck is tekanji talking about?” (you have read the letter, right?) because there’s nothing obviously unprofessional about it, and in fact it does include a lot of important and valid information in it. But if you hear me out and read the rest of this post, hopefully you’ll be able to see why I think that the letter was more unprofessional than it first appears.

The letter started out really good by answering the challenge with an upbeat and positive, “Look at all the great people we already have!” response. I was reading along, nodding my head, and overall feeling positive about the response. Then I hit the second paragraph.

The tone takes a sharp turn with the opening sentence [emphasis mine]:

Your assumptions about our staff diversity are incorrect. In the last seven years, NPR News alone has more than doubled its staff of people of color – by 106%. That includes 118% increase specifically in on-air diversity staff, 116% in editorial and 92% in production. Currently, the combined diversity staffing in these three areas represents 22 percent of our total news positions.

Was it necessary to say “[y]our assumptions… are incorrect”? It takes her positive and turns it into a negative — instead of focusing on what NPR is doing right, it focuses on what ABW said that was wrong. And, while I can’t speak for ABW, I can’t imagine how that’s a tactic that’s going to make her, or anyone who admires her, think, “Gee, look how swell NPR is, they really do deserve my money!”

In fact, that whole paragraph would have had a lot more impact if it had kept up the positive throughout. If I were to rewrite it, I’d probably go with something along the lines of:

I definitely agree with you that visible diversity in companies like ours is very important. Which is why I’d like to take some time to address the part of your post where you said “I suspect that, if one were to check, 90% of the reporters would be not-black. If we include all PoC in the count, then NPR is probably 75% white.” In the last seven years, NPR News alone has more than doubled its staff of people of color – by 106%.

It starts out by acknowledging the point that was behind ABW’s claim — that visible diversity is important, and that when diversity isn’t visible that it creates the feeling that the viewpoints of POC aren’t properly represented. Then it further acknowledges what she said as important, by emphasizing that the point is important enough to get its own paragraph. All of that primes the reader to be in a positive frame of mind and therefore the following information is seen as a helpful clarification, rather than a grown-up way of saying, “so there!”

The problem continues with the beginning of the next paragraph:

Finally, your description of News & Notes does a disservice to both the program and the African American Public Radio Consortium, the dedicated group of stations that co-created it with NPR.

Again we have the same problem of the negative focus on what ABW is doing/saying in terms of it being wrong instead of focusing on what NPR is doing right. And, I might be alone in this, but the whole, “you’re doing a disservice to these black organizations” kind of reads as the, “you are making other black people look bad” which, as an argument style, tends to put the blame on black people for being discriminated against, rather than on the systems that are allowing/encouraging the discriminating.

Personally, I think the entire letter would be stronger without that paragraph, because the whole paragraph looks like a vendetta against Tavis Smiley the way that it’s worded. Also, it takes the focus off of the positive things that NPR has done and puts it squarely on the negative side, both with what was said to ABW as well as the accusations made against Smiley (which, whether they’re true are not, are certainly not appropriate to discuss in this venue).

The next paragraph is generally a good one, as it’s about acknowledging that there’s room for improvement, but it reads as kind of cold and antiseptic. My suggestion here, then, would have been to have directly engaged with the underlying message of the post. Talking about the generalities of improvement does nothing to reassure ABW, or her readers, that their concerns, in particular, are being addressed. But doing something such as acknowledging that one of the ways that NPR could improve would be to be more clear and transparent about their current diversity and continuing efforts to improve it, so that listeners like ABW could feel more represented in the future, would have really helped to make a connection.

The last paragraph would need a complete overhaul. It comes across to me as if it’s rubbing it in ABW’s face how wrong she was about the diversity issue and how she should be ashamed of herself. The whole tone is so blatantly passive-aggressive (I mean, come on: “I know how hard they work to bring different perspectives to journalism and I would appreciate them being recognized for their efforts.”? Guilt trips are not high on the “ways to treat your consumers to make them want to give you money” list) and it completely undermines all of the positive points that were made earlier in the piece.

All in all, I have to say that I’m disappointed in NPR. I’m disappointed that they would let such a letter be sent, and I’m disappointed that they made activism look like some sort of petty contest (where there are people who do it “right”, ie. NPR, and people who do it “wrong”, ie. ABW). I’m not a business major, and I have very little practical experience in this area, but even I can see that sending such a letter to someone who is clearly a listener who thinks about donating is bad for business.

I, myself, do not particularly listen to NPR but I have family members who do. And you’d better believe that I’m directing them to ABW’s post, then this one, and then letting them know that NPR may be committed to “diversity” but it sure as hell isn’t committed to treating its listeners, and their concerns, with respect.

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9 thoughts on “On NPR, diversity, and responding to criticism

  1. I totally agree with you on how ridiculous the letter sounds. Whoever wrote it could benefit from reading How to Win Friends and Influence People. Actually, he/she could probably benefit from a little common sense. Geez.

  2. I noticed something too:

    If we include all PoC in the count, then NPR is probably 75% white.

    You think I’m wrong? Please provide evidence to the contrary.


    According the Radio and Television News Directors’ Association’s most recent analysis, NPR News diversity staffing is more than four times the overall percentage in radio news overall (6.4%) and identical to the overall TV news workforce (22%).

    (emphases mine)

    Not only does NPR confirm that, yes, the percentage of PoC is exactly as low as ABW estimates, there is a distinct attitude of “Hey, we’re maintaining the status quo; what more do you want of us?”

    They don’t provide evidence to the contrary, which was the challenge. NPR failed, and managed to sound entitled and self-satisfied in the process.

    Kudos to you, Angry Black Woman. You’ve gotten at least one white liberal to stop and take a good look at her privilege.

  3. Eh, I’ve pretty much stopped listening to NPR after Mag’s report on their take on nooses:

    All Things Considered, October 16, 2007 · In light of the resurgence of nooses appearing in places like Jena, La., and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, here’s a modest proposal: The next time somebody plants a noose, let’s just ignore it. Perhaps paying less attention to these acts will take away their racist power.

    Just … yeah, not really so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt anymore. Or to listen to anything they have to say, really. ABW should hit them with that; I mean, you can’t really call yourself interested in diversity if you’re going to trot out the whole “it’s your own fault for feeling victimised” crap.

  4. claire said:

    tekanji, you’re nitpicking here.

    First and final warning: it’s against the rules to use dismissive language, and that’s pretty damn dismissive. You want to post here, you read and follow the rules. Especially the parts where, you know, if you want to disagree you make your case politely.

    it’s the tone of some parts of the letter that you don’t like, not the substance.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I said I thought the problem with the letter was.

    I don’t understand your critique. Are you trying to say that it’s not a valid approach to criticize someone’s tone, especially when that someone is representing a company that exists, in part, because of user donations?

  5. Becci: Seriously. I mean, I understand feeling defensive over someone criticizing something you work hard on. I’ve been in similar situations. But my response wasn’t to fire off a condescending letter to the person, it was to 1) vent in private and then decide 2) if drafting a response (to either send to the person or post elsewhere) was worth it. And if I do write to them, I try my damnedest not to be an ass about it, even if I think they’re way off base in their critiques.

    Jo: Did you post that over at ABW’s place yet? If not, I think it’s definitely something she would want to hear.

    Sara: Ouch. Hello racism. I wonder if ABW knows about that broadcast.

  6. I was thinking about writing a response, but I’d like to see her response first.

    In my view th major problem is that they (the NPR folks) are confusing the racial identity of the reporters with the diversity of the content. I listen to NPR often–At least 2 hours a day.

    In the list of black reporters–I didn’t even know that several of those people were black. I knew their names, I listen to them, but their blackness is totally invisible. On the radio, their racial background or perspective is completely absent. Now, I suppose good reporters are not supposed to have too much of their own personality in their reporting, and you can’t see people on the radio.

    But I personally, don’t care as much about the race of the reporters. (Fox news has several black reporters. Does that help them? NO!) I think NPR needs to diversify its content. They have some of the whitest shows–Ira Glass is a cool white guy, but he’s the whitest of white. Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me–white show. Car Talk–hilarious and white. My favorite show is Brian Leher–it is a little less white, but still has a white guys host (several of his subs are people of color). I think they need more diverse shows, not just more brown faces.

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