NPR boss at National Press Club

Vivian Schiller, the president of NPR (formerly “National Public Radio”), is speaking today to the National Press Club. It’s one of her first major public appearances since the senior news editor at NPR was forced to resign in the wake of the Juan Williams controversy. Her appearance also comes at Congress considers chopping funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I’m live blogging her speech (12 p.m.) and Q&A session, which is being broadcast on MPR’s Midday.

12 p.m. – We’re underway with the usual introductions. Mark Hamrick, president of the Press Club notes that this isn’t the first financial crisis Schiller has faced at NPR. When she took over, companies were cutting, including their donations and underwriting, and NPR was laying off employees.

12:05 p.m. – Schiller: Begins by reading e-mail from an NPR reporter who made their way into Libya. “We basically pushed our way in, we walked across the border and were lucky to find people to drive us…. everywhere else we’ve gone, we’ve been treated with cheers and shouts. This is a country that hasn’t been exposed to western media. They were desperate to have their stories told. Everyone was stunned to see us.”

“I have never been prouder to be a journalist,” the email said.

Schiller: “It is at the core of NPR’s mission.”

12:08 p.m. – It’s been 44 years since CPB was established. “That was a time when the Big Three broadcast networks had foreign bureaus all over the world, and deep reporting staffs. Even then there was concern commercial interests would drive the networks away from news…. The economics of the news business are undergoing seismic change. Demand for the news had never been higher, and yet mainstream news organizations continue to cut back resources for news, particularly at the local level.”

12:11 p.m. – “We stay on the story when everyone else moves on,” she says. She notes reporters are still covering the West Virginia mine disaster, the Gulf oil spill, and the brain injuries of soldiers.

12:13 p.m. – “The audience at NPR radio is growing and has been growing.” Public radio listening in the top 50 audience is at an all-time high. The average listener listens for six hours a week.

12:18 p.m. – “Our coverage has its critics; we’re working to expand diversity of sources and we’re paying aggressive attention to our ethical decision making,” Schiller says. “We hope to deliver in even larger following in the country.

12:19 p.m. – She outlines the funding model for NPR. “We are successful because of the investment the American public has made in public media in 40 years and the way we’ve been able to leverage that investment to broaden support — listeners, corporate underwriters… philanthropic individuals and institutions… and continued government funding.” Grants to stations from CPB represent 10 percent of the public radio station economy.

12:20 p.m. – The 10 percent government funding is critical to generating the other 90 percent, she says. “It is through diversity of funding that we are able to maintain journalistic independence,” she said.

12: 22 p.m. – Schiller takes a shot at punditry. For some reason, I remember this wonderful segment, which made a young man who wanted to go into journalism, sit up and take notice:

12:25 p.m. – She ends her remarks by mentioning this riveting interview:


Q: Let’s get the Juan Williams issue dealt with. You’ve had five months to reflect on how it transpired. What can you tell people about the way it transpired and how you might have done it differently?

A: We handled the situation badly. We acted too hastily and we made some mistakes and I made some mistakes. The key is to fix systems that fell down on that day. That’s the learning experience.

Q: Is there a process in place reviewing that?

A: There were some processes that were followed and we have fixed them.

Q: Do you think you’ve moved past it?

A: There was some communications issues that didn’t work quite as they should have. Since October, we have undertaken a thorough review of our code of ethics to make sure it’s clear, up to date with the reality of media in 2011, and is consistently applied. It was created in 2004, so we’ve finished a process led by Bob Steele, the DePaul expert on journalism ethics, and we’ll be making changes.

We are going to be creating a new position at NPR — a standards editor, who is on top of all the other checks and balances.

Q: The task force has called for an end to NPR journalists appearing elsewhere. How will this affect Mara Liasson and Cokie Roberts?

A: We embrace the notion of NPR journalists appearing on other media. The task force has recommended ending the practice of having long-term relationships between journalists and other news organizations can be confusing. We’re not ready to make specific statements about individuals.

Q: Juan Williams was the only black male heard on NPR. What’s being done about the lack of diversity?

A: This is a very big priority for us. We have a number of initiatives underway to further diversify our staff, our reporters, the people we interview, and our audience. We’ve made progress but it’s not nearly enough. (She references this article)

Q: Is there a political imbalance at NPR?

A: I wish people could be in our editorial meetings and see the care our journalists take to get it right. We want journalism that reflects no political bias. We tell stories about areas that almost no other news organization is covering. I ask them to point to specific stories and when they do, we take them very seriously.

Q: Is it a perception issue?

A: There’s no question it’s a perception issue. I take much more seriously when someone says, “I have a problem with this story.” When we get a complaint, we take those very seriously.

Q: What is NPR doing to seek diverse talent outside of the j-schools, and the mainstream dailies?

A: We have a reporting farm team, represented by the affiliation stations. (Bob notes: I’m not sure I like the idea of being referred to as a farm team. I believe Martin Kaste and Kitty Eisele are the only MPR people to go to work for NPR, for what that’s worth.)

Q: What can you talk about the Gabrielle Giffords’ reporting error.

A: It was a mistake, plain and simple. There was no excuse for prematurely reporting her death. We take that matter extremely seriously. We’ve done a post mortem, we’ve evaluated processes. I wouldn’t say it represents anything more than the one mistake it is.

Background: Slow down NPR (American Journalism Review)

Q: How high is the risk of the deficit cutting environment?

A: It’s a significant risk and is a risk to all of public broadcasting. For many public radio stations, it’s a much higher percentage (than 10%) of revenue. On top of that, there is state funding as well. It (cutting) would have a big impact on public radio’s ability to deliver news or, in the case of TV, presentation of the arts.

Q: How does the liberal perception impact the current debate?

A: This country is facing a $1.4 trillion deficit. I believe that this is driven mostly by an attempt to find cuts to the deficit. That’s certainly understandable, but the small amount of money that goes for public broadcasting, and the very large amount of money that small amount of money leverages… is too critical to give up.

Q: What sets this apart from other Republican-led efforts to defund NPR?

A: The deficit.

Q: Why doesn’t NPR become a self-funded organizatin?

A: If federal dollars went away, the ability to serve the public to provide universal aspect with free over-the-air information… we would be retreating. You can’t isolate funding for this one entity or this station. It is the network effect that strengthens us. Not just the big distributors on radio, but PBS, and local TV stations. You pull out one thread and the whole thing unravels.

Q: Can you talk about listening to radio growing up? And what do you listen to now other than NPR?

A: I grew up in New York so I was listening to AM pop radio. I came late to NPR because for most of the ’80s, I was living abroad. I started listening when dating my husband and had just moved back into the country. He had NPR on and that was it. I was hooked to NPR and hooked to him.

Q: NPR engineers complain they’re being made obsolete and the audio is suffering.

A: Audio is essential to us. There is a unique quality that’s hard to describe. We are not forsaking our heritage, although there has been a reduction in audio engineers. We have fewer audio engineers going to do field reporting. In those cases, perhaps, you’re not hearing the same richness of sound and layering, but we’re not hearing complaints.

Q: Couldn’t NPR raise money by becoming a private company. Why not just air commercials and move on?

A: That’s not public radio (Bob: It’s also not allowed by the law). We’d like to have more radio from private interests, but the fact is we have no plans to become a commercial enterprise. It’s not who we are; we’re on the non-commercial end of the radio spectrum.

Q: Your Web site is obviously a rich site. What is your vision for the future? And what aren’t you trying to do? Are you staying away from video?

A: is just one piece of our whole digital strategy. Our goal is simple: To provide more sources of that to more people. We must be available wherever the audience is. Even though they’re listening to radio in record numbers, we also know they’re on other devices. In the next year, we’ll be rolling out plans to make sure that we provide all of that to our member stations so all of our stations can be as robust on their Web sites and we all are on the radio.

Q: Is there a downside risk?

A: The only risk in all of this is if we ignore what the audience wants.

Q: Have all the positions you eliminated been restored?

A: No. The team made the right decision. Instead of cutting everyone, two shows were cut. In so doing, the rest of the newsgathering operation were not only spared, but we began to modestly invest in those programs. Those investments haven’t reached the level of the people laid off from those two shows, but where we invest will be to have more foreign correspondents and more reporters on the beat.

Schiller gets the traditional NPC mug, signifying the end of her presentation.

Update 3:18 reports on the NPR task force report that includes “reining in punditizing.”

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