Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Reviewing NPR Authors on NPR: A Conflict of Interest?
NPR.org, May 10, 2005 ·

There's a longstanding tradition of book reviews on NPR. Authors and publishers constantly send their wares to NPR programs in hopes that something about the book will pique a producer's interest.

Public radio listeners are voracious readers and thousands of books and their authors are aired on public radio every year.

When an author gets interviewed on NPR, it's almost a ticket to the top of the Amazon.com lists.

NPR Interviews NPR Personalities

There's another longstanding tradition in public radio. Whenever an NPR journalist, host or personality writes a book, invariably he or she is interviewed on NPR. And usually on more than one program.

Just as inevitably, listeners ask: should NPR employees use NPR programs to talk about their books? (NPR hosts may not talk about their own works on their own program.)

NPR is a creative environment and it houses a prolific bunch. Rarely a year goes by without someone well known to public radio audiences going on a book tour to promote a latest opus.

Now it's NPR's Scott Simon's turn. It's not his first book. But it is his first novel.

The novel is entitled Little Birds and Scott has taken a leave of absence from NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday to travel around the country, read excerpts in book stores and autograph copies for eager listener/readers. So far, the reviews in other media have been positive.

Interviewed on 'Morning Edition'

On May 3, Renee Montagne on NPR's Morning Edition interviewed Simon.

He read excerpts and answered questions from the host about how the novel originated from his own reporting for NPR News during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993.

After the interview, a number of listeners such as Gary Sullivan wrote to ask whether this constituted a conflict of interest on the part of NPR and Simon:

I was surprised to hear Scott Simon interviewed this morning about his new book.

I haven't read it -- I have no idea if it's any good. But does anyone at NPR think it's a little... unseemly... for a host to be interviewed, essentially to flog his own book?

Scott Simon also was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. That provoked another round of e-mails.

From listener Donn Cohen:

NPR engages from time to time in the promotion of books written by its employees. Most recently you promoted a book written by Mr. Simon. There are many excellent books published almost daily but the authors of those books don't have the advantage of being employed by NPR and many fine books go unnoticed. I object to employees of NPR using their connections to gain publicity for their books. It's a conflict of interest and I decry the practice.

'Listeners Want to Hear This Side'

Bruce Drake is NPR's VP of News. His response to the question of whether this constitutes a problem:

NPR is blessed with some of the finest writers, journalists and thinkers in the business. When they write a book, it usually is a book that would merit invitations from a variety of news outlets for an author interview -- on TV, radio and in print. That is the basis on which we have maintained the tradition of allowing NPR people to be interviewed on our shows about their work. I would add my belief that given the close connection our audience has with us, they want to hear this side of the people they have known on air for so long.

That being said, there may be a perception problem when an NPR author appears on more than one NPR program. That has resulted from the fact that there are some programs produced in-house by NPR like Morning Edition and ATC, and there are what we call "acquired" programs (that) are produced by others that we distribute, and who do their booking of guests independently from the in-house programs. But all these programs carry the NPR name, so this is an issue we may have to think about.

Journalists Reviewing Journalists

Most news organizations are faced with this problem of how to review books written by their own journalists.

Newspapers partly resolve this by hiring freelance reviewers to write their assessments. But fellow ombudsmen tell me that it is almost impossible for a newspaper not to review a book written by one of their own journalists.

I suspect that, at NPR, the same subtle pressures exist.

Scott Simon's book may or may not be an exception to this since it is rare for any journalist -- at NPR or anywhere else -- to venture into fiction. So the rationale for asking him to appear on NPR is probably justified.

'Logrolling'* or Normal Decision-Making?

But other books by NPR journalists have, in the past, provoked grumbling from the producers who feel that some books just weren't good enough to merit interviews with the authors. Yet it's almost impossible to reject a book by a co-worker without appearing uncollegial.

One solution might be to adopt the outside critic model. NPR's All Things Considered does this by asking a professor of creative writing, Alan Cheuse, to review fiction that he alone picks (after running it by an editor).

NPR listeners are, we are told, always interested in hearing the ideas of NPR journalists. The presence of so many public radio supporters at any book tour is proof of that.

There is also nothing wrong with NPR modestly basking in the reflected glory of its employees' extracurricular achievements.

But listeners are still concerned whenever NPR's journalism appears to overlap with its employees' economic self-interest. And they worry that "logrolling"* -- as opposed to normal journalistic practices -- may be part of NPR's decision to review the book and interview its author.

*Webster's Dictionary, 4th Edition: Logrolling -- a giving of help, praise, in return for help, praise. In politics, mutual aid among politicians, as by reciprocal voting for each other's bills.

NPR : Reviewing NPR Authors on NPR: A Conflict of Interest?

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