The recently announced upcoming departure of NPR CEO Gary Knell serves as a useful time to look at the history of NPR leadership. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, NPR insists that it doesn’t play favorites in its news coverage of political parties. One indication of NPR’s actual commitment to being nonpartisan in its news coverage is its choice of President/CEO. Just from what is publicly known about NPR’s nine leaders over the past 42 years, most were known to be devoted Democrats before being hired. None were known to be Republicans (even liberal Republicans).
NPR’s first two leaders had no public history of partisan activity. The NPR board can’t take much credit for that, though. The first leader, Don Quayle, was picked before NPR was even broadcasting. The second leader, Lee Frischknecht, a life-long friend of Quayle’s and already second in command at NPR, was hand-picked by Quayle to take over at NPR, so that he could move on to another job. Those were unique cases.
Belying the image of Walter Cronkite as an journalist without any political motives, while anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1967 he secretly “pleaded” with Senator Robert Kennedy to run as an anti-Vietnam war candidate for President and he later acknowledged that, if offered, he would have accepted the slot as George McGovern's VP in 1972. Frank Mankiewicz, who worked for both Kennedy and McGovern before serving as President of NPR from 1977 to 1983, revealed the liberal Democratic political activism of Cronkite, who passed away on July 17, in a Saturday Washington Post op-ed, “Vice President Walter Cronkite.”
Mankiewicz, who would have the duty of making the public announcement of Kennedy's assassination, offered this insider account:
In the late 1960s, just after he returned from a long visit to Vietnam, Cronkite had sought a meeting with Sen. Robert Kennedy. I sat in as Kennedy's press secretary. The meeting was understood to be off the record, and no one else was present.
Cronkite began with an acknowledgement of Kennedy's desire not to run for president but pleaded with RFK to change his mind and to announce his intention to seek the White House right away, even though the election was more than a year off. You must announce your intention to run against Johnson, Cronkite urged, to show people there will be a way out of this terrible war.