This post has been updated below.
NPR hosts, correspondents, producers and contributors write an awful lot of books, many of them eagerly anticipated by listeners who turn them into bestsellers. But I believe NPR should not routinely help their cause by featuring the books on air and online. NPR's new top news executive concurs, in part, particularly when it comes to show hosts discussing their own outside projects on their own shows.
Until now it's been almost a sure bet that NPR listeners and NPR.org readers would hear about new books by staff members and contributors; it has been standard practice in recent years to feature them on NPR programs and at NPR.org. Increasingly, those interviews have even been conducted by close colleagues.
In the most recent example, on Tuesday, which was publication day for Steve Inskeep's Jacksonland, a history book about President Andrew Jackson and his relationship with Cherokee Chief John Ross, the Morning Edition co-host was interviewed by one of the show's other co-hosts, Renee Montagne.
Inskeep himself interviewed their third colleague, David Greene, last October, when Greene's Midnight in Siberia was published. In recent weeks, Inskeep also interviewed the show's Monday contributor Cokie Roberts about her new book Capital Dames, and Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon about his new Unforgettable, a memoir of his mother's life and death. All Things Considered co-host Audie Cornish interviewed regular Friday contributor David Brooks about his new book, The Road to Character.
Listeners who have complained to me see this practice of covering staff-written books in financial terms. Doug MacDonald, a listener in Durham, N.H., wrote of the Jacksonland interview: "Your staff have no right to be using NPR as a platform to promote projects which will enrich them personally."
Carl Goldfield, a listener in New Haven, Conn., called that interview "unethical and inappropriate," adding "With all of the worthwhile history books being published, NPR decided there was some special merit to his? On what grounds? I donate money to my local NPR stations (WNPR and WSHU) because I believe in their non-profit missions. I am outraged to have my hard earned dollars go to support Steve Inskeep's campaign to increase his outside author income."
Others called out more explicitly the conflict in having a host's project featured on his own show, instead of elsewhere on NPR where there might be a bit more editorial distance.
And interviews aren't alone in coming in for criticism. Even a mere mention of Brooks' new book at the end of a recent Friday commentary segment drew a complaint from Steve Mangion, of Newbury, Mass., who wrote: "Certainly seems like an unwarranted plug to me."
I also heard from general managers of NPR stations about the Montagne-Inskeep interview. Oregon Public Broadcasting did not air it, citing the conflict of interest. Al Bartholet, executive director of WMRA in Harrisonburg, Va., said his station did not air the tune-in promotion for the interview because of its disagreement over "the continued practice of promoting NPR host books under the guise of a legitimate news story." Bartholet noted that when one of the station's own part-time hosts, Martha Woodroof, wrote a novel called Small Blessings last year, she was interviewed by Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday, "but WMRA did not interview her or allow her to promote her own book."
Is there a direct line between an NPR interview and sales? A 2012 chart by Business Insider showed the impact of an NPR mention using data from Goodreads.com, a site where readers list books that interest them.
Until now (see a late-breaking update at the bottom of this post) NPR has had no firm policy governing how to handle staff-written books, which is surprising, since NPR has gone to great lengths to be transparent about the picks for the recently launched Morning Edition Book Club, and, moreover, has extensive guidelines for avoiding other conflicts of interest. As the ethics handbook notes:
Conflicts of interest come in many shapes — financial holdings, romantic relationships, family ties, book deals, speaking engagements, and others. It's important to regularly review how our connections are entangled with the subjects of our reporting, and when necessary, to take action.
In minor cases, we might satisfy an apparent conflict by prominently disclosing it, and perhaps explaining to the public why it doesn't compromise our work. When presented with more significant conflicts that might affect our ongoing work, our best response is to avoid them. But some conflicts are unavoidable, and may require us to recuse ourselves from certain coverage. More specific guidance on how to make these decisions appears in the sections below.
Other national publications—although certainly not all-- have strict rules governing how they handle books written by staffers. If a New York Times reporter writes a book, it will almost certainly be reviewed by a non-staff person. In recent years staff writers haven't even gotten that at The Economist, which has previously said, "Our policy is not to review books written by our staff or regular freelance contributors because readers might doubt the independence of such reviews."
In NPR's case we are not talking about reviews, but features, which are more promotional. But banning them altogether, in my mind, would be going too far, by depriving readers (or in NPR's case, listeners) of information that they might otherwise find valuable or interesting. I also got complaints about the interview of Simon. That interview seemed appropriate to me, however, given that Simon's poignant July 2013 tweets as his mother was dying became a story unto themselves, and provoked a dialogue about grieving in the social media era. Had NPR not covered the book in some way, it would have seemed odd, and NPR listeners would have been disadvantaged.
Nonetheless, NPR should not be featuring a host's book on his or her own program (and no longer will be; see below.) Overall, it also ought to be much more stingy when handing out these features to fellow staff members, particularly when it comes to the main newsmagazines, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and their weekend counterparts. If production executives worry they would be put in the uncomfortable position of telling colleagues, "No, your book doesn't meet our threshold of newsworthiness," the newsroom should set a policy of largely avoiding these interviews altogether, or designate one newsroom executive to be the arbiter.
I've heard the argument internally that NPR's listeners are, by definition, interested in what NPR hosts and correspondents are up to—and that NPR listeners tend to be readers. Both of those likely are true, to some extent, but in that case why not put an excerpt online, instead of devoting some of the limited on-air time to what will be seen as a promotion? The New York Times, where one almost never sees features about books written by staffers, recently ran an online Q-and-A with its personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, about his new book, The Opposite of Spoiled, where readers did the interviewing about the topic. That also seems like a reasonable option for NPR.
I'm less concerned about staff interviews if they are conducted on the midday Here and Now, or NPR-distributed programs such as The Diane Rehm Show (where Inskeep will be interviewed today) and Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross. They are more conversationally driven, and in the case of the Rehm's show and Fresh Air, there is some editorial distance, as the staff and hosts of those shows do not work in or report to NPR's newsroom.
Updated at 10:00 a.m. ET
Last evening, after I finished writing this column but before I had a chance to post it, NPR's top news official, Michael Oreskes, who started work April 27, sent me new guidelines for covering staff-written books, after coming to some, but not all, of the same conclusions that I did. He told me the guidelines were drafted after he heard the Jacksonland segment and discussed it with those involved and with key newsroom leaders. His note follows:
NPR has not had a written policy on this issue or even a consistent practice. We will now. NPR's producers and editors will use the same standard they apply to outside books to decide whether works by our own staff merit coverage and on which of our programs and platforms. That decision must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News — that is, me.
This book clearly would have met our test of coverage. Steve is a successful author who has written a well-researched work of history about one of our most important presidents and his relationship with the chief of the Cherokee. The book has already received a number of reviews and The New York Times published an Op Ed piece related to the book. There was no reason for us to leave NPR listeners out of this conversation.
NPR has no financial interest in Steve's book. His managers believed his listeners on Morning Edition would want to hear from him about his book. That was a good faith decision. Just not the right one.
Interviewing Steve on his own show created needless doubts and confusion among some listeners. That's not how we should have done it. For the future, NPR staff members will not appear on their own shows to discuss outside books or other works unrelated to NPR coverage.
I also received a reply from Tracy Wahl, the executive producer of Morning Edition:
When we consider who our hosts should interview, we assess interviewees based on their reporting and the listener interest in the topics of the books.
When it came to Steve's book, Renee Montagne expressed interest. She has long been interested in Native American history given her own family connection to the Dakotas and the West. Morning Edition managers considered her request and determined that having her interview Steve fell within the above-mentioned criteria. Listeners would be interested and the reporting was solid.
Even if Steve had not been the author, it is quite likely that she would have wanted us to book an interview with an author writing a book about Andrew Jackson and John Ross.
Some writers to the ombudsman were concerned that Renee was not able to ask tough questions of Steve because of their working relationship.
Renee has interviewed Steve about his stories many times before and no one has ever raised a concern about it and she has never had any trouble speaking her mind on or off the air. Also, as with every project we rigorously check the reporting as much as we can.
Writers to the ombudsman have expressed concern that there will be a perception of conflict of interest. I don't think that is true for the majority of listeners, although of course I can't prove that.
I believe listeners expect that hosts interrogate each other's reporting when interviewing each other about breaking news and reporting trips. I believe that they have the same expectation when one host interviews another about his or her reporting that they might do off the clock.
And finally, I'll give the last word to Inskeep, since he ended up being the focus point here, even though the issue is much broader than just this one interview. He told me:
I researched and reported out a story and, when asked, talked about it on NPR. That's what I do every day on NPR.
It's true that I get paid for working that story. I get paid for all the work I do on NPR.
It's true that NPR did not pay for my research and travel costs for that story over the course of two years, although NPR has often put reporting on the air that NPR did not finance.
It's true that Renee asked me questions, as she has with many stories on NPR.
I have, over the years, done book interviews with Juan Williams (then of NPR), Scott Simon, Anya Kamenetz, Michele Norris, Cokie Roberts and David Greene, as well as hundreds of book talks with reporters and writers who aren't from NPR and have no connection to me. The way I look at books, at least the kind of books we talk about on NPR, they are about doing original research and reporting and spreading ideas.
Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET
NPR has updated its ethics handbook to reflect the changes in policy. The official guidelines can be found here.
Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this report.
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