What else changes after Buzenberg leaves?

Worries about staff diversity and independence surface with resignation of NPR News chief

Originally published in Current, Feb. 3, 1997

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Two weeks ago as Bill Buzenberg ended his resignation speech to NPR news staff members gathered in a conference room, he fought back tears and said emphatically that "working for you and defending you and fighting for you has been one of the great things in my life."

Photo of Bill BuzenbergPhoto of Del LewisMinutes later, NPR President Delano Lewis said the news department head was leaving "really, really big shoes to fill." Lewis also said: "When you're running anything, you have to take the bitter with the sweet. When you run anything, if it's on your watch, it's yours. You're accountable. Bill's been accountable. And he should stand up proudly" to accept the accolades NPR news reporting has won.

Despite Buzenberg's assertions that he needs a break after seven years as v.p. for news and information, many pubcasters believe Lewis held open the exit door. The remarks by Buzenberg and Lewis may have deeper significance in light of that suspicion, and in the context of NPR's past and uncertainties about its future. That is:

Despite at least two years of rumors of a tense relationship between Buzenberg and Lewis, the newsman's announcement surprised the system. Buzenberg wears on his sleeve his dedication to NPR news; he's the one who brought the department to maturity, and his connection to it runs deep [related story]. Some people assume Lewis coerced him to step down. Lewis, like any c.e.o., would want his own man overseeing news, they say. Since joining NPR, he has fired station services head Midge Ramsey, brought in chief operating officer Peter Jablow, promoted NPR lobbyist Mary Lou Joseph to head station services, and sacked the communications department as part of a larger reorganization, putting his longtime right-hand woman, Kathy Scott, in charge of p.r.

It seems telling that Lewis and Buzenberg say the resignation was a "mutual" decision. "As c.e.o. of this great institution, these are tough, tough decisions," Lewis told the newsroom gathering on Jan 17. "Bill and I wrassled with this one, and we came to a decision. Bill came to the decision." Buzenberg explains that there were only "elements" of mutual consideration in the decision, such as the fact he may return to NPR as a reporter, and when to announce the resignation. Asked if Lewis welcomed Buzenberg's return, spokesperson Scott said: "He thinks we can make it work."

After seven years in a job that NPR program hosts and one board member variously describe as "horrible," "impossible" and "relentless," Buzenberg must be ready for a break. "It's a tough job and I didn't think I'd do it forever when I took over," he says. "I thought maybe a few years. Seven is plenty."

Sandra Rattley-Lewis, who now heads NPR's new Program Strategy Board but used to be Buzenberg's counterpart in the cultural department, says she and Buzenberg spent quite a few late evenings discussing the intensity of their job demands. "We were talking pretty consistently about issues of fatigue, overextension and effectiveness," she says. NPR's growth required both programming heads to spend more time on audience-building and funding efforts than on program content.

Buzenberg, who joined NPR 18 years ago as a reporter and eventually became London Bureau chief, says he frequently longs to return to reporting. In recent years, he's sorely missed his department's morning editorial meetings with their lively discussions. Initially, he ran the meetings; then managing editor Bruce Drake took over, though Buzenberg still sat in; now, he rarely can even attend. "I love the daily editorial meeting," he says.

During his leave, beginning March 3, Buzenberg plans to finish a book he's writing with his wife Susan about former CBS News President Richard Salant. The late Salant was also an NPR Board member who tried to get the network to reject funding earmarked for specific regions or topics. Salant quit the board in 1990, during a conflict over the issue with then-President Doug Bennet. Salant also had struggles at CBS News, to which Buzenberg says he can relate. "Middle management is a thankless job. Here he is, fighting upstairs for a budget. And downstairs telling [reporters and editors] they have to do more, pushing them. Upstairs, they say, 'Ah, he's just a journalist.' Downstairs, they say, 'He's just a manager.'" It's "the big squeeze," Buzenberg says.

Corporate culture

Buzenberg says his relationship with Lewis has been "generally positive." And Lewis said on Jan. 17 that he has the utmost respect for the news executive, who, like himself, comes from Kansas and served in the Peace Corps. But many, many NPR staff members say the two men--one a high-strung, quick-to-emote, generous-with-praise newsman and the other a successful, charismatic and somewhat enigmatic c.e.o.--have different sensibilities. One staff member saw it this way: Buzenberg is always "terribly excited" about the quality of NPR's news coverage. "Any time we won an award, or covered something very well, he really celebrated that. I think Del took that for granted a bit--'That's what we do, award-winning news.' "

"The news thing is really distinctive," the employee said. "It's pretty hard for other people to assimilate those values." Buzenberg seems to agree. Referring again to Salant's CBS experience, he says that senior management is apt to think news folks are "arrogant and unruly."

Many observers frame the differences between Lewis and Buzenberg as corporate versus, well, not-corporate-enough. Says Talk of the Nation host Ray Suarez: "Del comes from [the world of] running places. ... There is a very peculiar corporate culture here--I had to learn it myself. It's different from any place I ever worked. Bill Buzenberg is someone who came up through the ranks as a reporter. He really is a creature of this place."

John Dinges, a former NPR managing editor who ran NPR's Election Project before leaving to teach at Columbia University last fall, says Lewis wanted a v.p. with a value system different than Buzenberg's. "It's clear Bill Buzenberg is not a corporate manager, and that's the thing Del most holds against him. Because he understands so little about news, he doesn't understand you don't have corporate people running news departments."

Specific examples of friction between Buzenberg and Lewis were hard to come by. Many people say Buzenberg doesn't like to fire people. Dinges agreed Buzenberg has difficulty saying 'No,' but then retracted the statement. "He's good at saying 'no' when he needs to, but he's a softie when it comes to talent who are part of the NPR family and who have done good work and we don't happen to have a spot for. He will bend over backwards to keep a person at NPR."

Two of the lawsuits against NPR--by reporter Sunni Khalid and former reporter Katie Davis--charge that Buzenberg promised positions that never materialized.

It's certain that Buzenberg sees his job as inherently requiring fights with upper management. Typically, "News worries about independence and fights over the budget," he says. He's had to ensure that there's a firewall between News on the one hand, and fundraisers and underwriters on the other hand, he says.

The job requires fighting outsiders, too. "When there's pressure from the outside on a commentator, and it's clear to me we'll keep the commentator on the air, I go to bat and make sure we keep them," he says. "[Same for] an editor or reporter. People that are good, stay here."

Also, it's well-known that Buzenberg pushed hard, all the time, to maintain or increase the news budget. At his resignation, he joked to Lewis that News "almost" has the resources it needs to do its job well.

The possibility of a future without such a strong News advocate has raised anxiety levels already heightened by business-world fixtures that Lewis brought to NPR: multitudinous task forces, a c.o.o., motivational consultants and, perhaps most significantly, the prospect of deals with big-money media companies. Says an NPR journalist: "The corporate-culture mode NPR is in is scary to people. And the [possibility] of who they'll appoint to replace [Buzenberg] is a bit scary."

Other news organizations are frequently firing journalists as news managers and hiring "toadies," Dinges observes. "And I'm concerned that will happen" at NPR, he says.

But Buzenberg has faith that NPR "has every chance of getting in someone very good, who will continue be an advocate. I have every belief that will happen."

Minorities "under attack"

In mid-1996, a group of minority employees met with Lewis and complained about discrimination in the news department. According to Khalid's recently filed suit, during the meeting one employee told Lewis that minorities were "under attack" in the newsroom.

Whether or not Lewis had problems with Buzenberg's handling of diversity issues, as some say, or used the diversity issue to get Buzenberg out, as Dinges and others charge, is unclear. Buzenberg says the matter was not a point of contention between he and Lewis. "It has never been an issue when Del and I talked, and certainly [not] when we talked about my leaving." Scott says the same: that Lewis and Buzenberg talked about diversity issues only to the extent "it was an issue they both supported." Lewis was not available for comment.

Buzenberg defends his record in minority hiring and promotion, noting he has hired 16 minority employees during his tenure, and that 11 minority individuals are now on the air. Though NPR still has progress to make, it "still is the most diverse news organization in the country that I know of." He says the company needs to shore up its minority presence in three areas: senior producer positions, on-air reporters, and hosts. Regarding the last, All Things Considered host Noah Adams just announced a year-long sabbatical to work on a book, and Suarez will fill-in for part of the time. (Melinda Penkava will be the substitute host for TOTN).

Two minority employees who asked not to be identified spoke highly of Buzenberg. Says one: "He really thought he was our friend. Nobody had a problem with his heart, and his intentions were always good." The problem, both employees said, is in large part a pervasive cronyism. "Advancement is difficult because of cronyism. It's not necessarily race-based, it's friends-hire-friends. And look, we self-segregate. So what happens is, minorities are disproportionately affected and we're pissed off about it." A third source agreed. NPR's problem is not in hiring minority employees, the source said, but keeping them. "It's a no-brainer. People leave when they don't feel they're an integral part of something. It's not true of just NPR. It's true in most places. People are hired as desk assistants and there's no room for growth. ... When you feel there's nowhere to go, you move on."

The issue was so hot a few months back that, according to another staff member who asked not to be identified, Lewis and Buzenberg both thought it best to delegate the hiring of foreign desk chief to a panel. Joyce Davis, an African-American, and Loren Jenkins, who is white, were seeking the job.

The panel chose Jenkins, who has since, according to the staff member and the Khalid lawsuit, made remarks along lines of race and religion that offended some staff members. "He has been coached and he has been reprimanded," said the staffer. Scott confirmed Jenkins had been "disciplined" for calling Arab people "ragheads" in an editorial meeting. Jenkins had no comment.

Because of Khalid's complaints about his treatment by news middle managers, NPR last year brought in a team of lawyers to investigate its newsroom. Scott says the NPR general counsel's office did bring in a team of consultants, but she wouldn't share their findings or recommendations. According to one source, NPR wanted the consultants to be aggressive about finding problems. Management wanted to learn "what do we need to know about our newsroom?," the staff member says.

Since then, NPR has appointed Joyce Davis to a six-month position as director of news staffing and administration. The job is "designed to help the vice president of news and information in making hiring decisions, and all personnel movements inside," she says. Asked if the emphasis was on diversity, she said the "emphasis is on fairness and making sure rules and regulations are followed." Buzenberg says probably one-third of the administrator's time will be taken up with diversity issues.

NPR has also instituted a unit designed to give employees training for advancement, and a mentors program. "For the first time there's hope things are changing," says one minority employee. "At least people are examining what's going on. It's not just a system moving of its own force. We're consciously looking at what we do."

Suarez says management seems "really serious about addressing these things." In some places, talk about diversity is "a p.r. exercise," but apparently not at NPR. "I really believe them," he says.

Up ahead

NPR has set a surprisingly short deadline to find Buzenberg's successor--it wants to have someone hired before the Public Radio Conference in June, according to interim news chief Bruce Drake. Drake immediately declared himself out of the running, wanting to stay close to news coverage. Also, by not being a candidate he can be an integral part of the selection process, he says.

Lewis has set up a search committee that is made up almost entirely of people from News: reporter and former host Alex Chadwick; Joyce Davis; Drake; C.O.O. Peter Jablow; Greg Peppers, a senior newscast producer; Barbara Rehm, assistant managing editor; Susan Stamberg; Suarez, and Nina Totenberg.

Scott says Lewis has set journalistic credentials as the first priority and managerial skills as the second.

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Related article Related article: Buzenberg ran the NPR news department for seven years, as it came into full flower.

Related article Related news: Among the job discrimination suits filed against NPR were those filed by Sunni Khalid in early 1997 and settled with Katie Davis in 1996.

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