Nancy Barnes’ vision for NPR

Nancy Barnes, the former editor and senior vice president at the Star Tribune, has laid out her vision for the future of NPR News, the network’s public editor reports. Last October, Barnes was tabbed to take the job once held by the disgraced Michael Oreskes, forced to resign as the result of a sexual harassment scandal in 2017.

The good news, for Morning Edition fans particularly, is she wants to do fewer live interviews, in which a host gives five or six minutes of airtime to a single guest and is thrust into an occasionally awkward position of having to play the opposition and/or fact-checker on the spot. And, again occasionally, giving someone airtime without appropriate context and pushback is just a really bad idea.

Moreover, it tests the historical cultural identity of public radio, which was built on thoughtful, analytical pieces by reporters over the CNN-style “breaking news interviews” by hosts that have become more predominant.

“I’m just trying to dial back on incremental updates so that we have more time and eventually more resources for exclusive journalism. Stories that only NPR can provide, that’s really what I’m looking for,” Barnes tells public editor Elizabeth Jensen in her column today.

About those interviews…

Barnes said the topic is “more complicated than anybody imagines. I won’t talk about this particular guest, but somebody raised questions about why we didn’t push back on guest x, and in this case it was a very strong effort to bring in a Republican point of view on a story. And I think it’s a catch-22. You invited this person in to tell his side of the story, and if you push back hard on what he’s saying, then you give the impression that you’re not fairly listening to an alternative point of view.” Also, sometimes guests come on with talking points and “arguing with them isn’t gonna do anybody any good.”

Conversely, she said she does not want to “ever tell a journalist not to push back if they think somebody is not being straightforward and honest,” but added, “We have to make sure that it doesn’t sound like partisan pushback.”

That’ll be a neat trick in today’s political environment and for a network that’s based inside the Beltway and feeds off politics more than any other topic.

Barnes, who ran the Houston Chronicle newsroom between her stints at the Star Tribune and NPR, will be an advocate for getting more stories from outside the Washington bubble.

“I will say I think sometimes we focus on Washington too much. If you get outside Washington,” she tells Jensen, “you realize that not everybody is talking about Trump and Mueller every second of the day. They’re really not. But if you’re in Washington, that’s all anybody’s talking about. An editor said to me, ‘Well I realize we talk a lot about Washington, but it is the story that’s driving the country and the world.’ And there’s something to that, as well. But we do need a little more balance in our report, so that it doesn’t feel like we’re topping every hour with three stories out of Washington.”

“It’s a great newsroom,” she rightly says of NPR.

It obviously has a management that made the right choice for a news boss.

  • Mike

    Sounds like the right move to me. I agree that it’s difficult for reporters to walk that narrow line in live interviews between being too deferential and too combative.

    Live interviews are often just opportunities for various parties to repeat their talking points ad nauseum, and never acknowledge contrary facts or opinion. And NPR, like most mainstream media, is far too deferential to national security officials anyway. Better to focus the resources on in-depth, exclusive stories.

    • Ickster

      Agreed. An interview should be what a reporter does as part of a larger story, not the story.

  • Sonny T

    “And, again occasionally, giving someone airtime without appropriate context and pushback is just a really bad idea.”

    Yes. Any time an agenda-driven guest is unchallenged, it erodes the news source.

  • MikeB

    I really like these changes, especially devoting less time to polical talking points.

    “It obviously has a management that made the right choice for a news boss.”

  • Jerry

    They just need to clone Terry Gross

    • Jim in RF

      Fresh Air is not what it used to be, to me. Prep seems to be reading the Wikipedia bio.

  • Jim in RF

    Brought this up before, but I still think its a good idea. Every morning at 7:36, or sometime, five minutes of news from a state bureau about an issue that people in the other 49 states aren’t aware of. Every state gets on about 4 times a year: Friday 3/22 is MN, Monday 3/25 is Missouri, etc. It would be sort of what USAToday does with the section that has a para from each state. Brand it with intro music and something like “And now we travel to Arizona, where Jan Smith brings a story about why there’s a tile shortage in Yuma.” It plays to NPR’s strengths of having reporters everywhere, and I don’t need one more horserace story from D.C.

  • Duke Powell

    “Conversely, she said she does not want to “ever tell a journalist not to push back if they think somebody is not being straightforward and honest,” but added, “We have to make sure that it doesn’t sound like partisan pushback.”

    NPR is insular and has completely shut out the outside world. In most respects they are arrogant – but at least they are smug about it.

    Nancy Barnes’ job will not be to right a sinking ship. Her job is to perpetuate the leftist agenda while maintaining and increasing taxpayer funding of public broadcasting.

    • Sonny T

      Something that’s missing: Both sides can be wrong.

      I think a rule for journalists should be: If you can’t be non-partisan– Get out.

  • 212944

    Tom Clark … oh, yes!

    And Katherine Lanpher was quick to push back on talking points for depth as well.