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.
The first real effort by NPR’s board to find a leader resulted in the selection of a high-profile Democrat, Frank Mankiewicz. He was a Democratic operative who had just five years earlier run the presidential campaign of the very liberal Democrat George McGovern. Just prior to being selected, he was working as a well-known liberal commentator. Unsurprisingly, he quickly returned to Democratic politics after leaving NPR in 1983, advising Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart.
The NPR board next selected Douglas Bennet. He had previously run for a U.S. House seat in a Democratic primary, served on the staffs of three Democratic U.S. Senators, and worked in Democrat president Jimmy Carter’s administration. In December 1992, near the end of Bennet’s NPR tenure, NPR aired in full a Democratic National Committee-sponsored two-day presidential transition summit packed with Bill Clinton-friendly panelists, sending NPR host Robert Siegel and its economics reporters to Arkansas. Even worse, NPR played an active role in the conference, providing questions to the panelists from NPR listeners after selecting the callers and the questions. Bennet was simply enthusiastic about the return of a Democrat to the presidency, indicating that he was a fan of Clinton and that Clinton was a fan of NPR:
NPR Pres. Douglas Bennet predicted that [sic] new Administration would be "a lot more favorable" to arts, humanities and cultural diversity than its predecessors and said that should create "a favorable climate for public radio. Our strategic objectives both as an information source and a cultural force should be compatible with [new] Administration's objectives." Bennet said that it's "abundantly apparent" that Clinton is regular NPR listener -- it facilitated listener calls to him during [sic] recent economic summit in Little Rock -- "so he knows what we do and the value of our service." (Communications Daily, Jan. 4, 1993—emphasis mine)
Unsurprisingly, just six weeks after Bill Clinton was inaugurated President, Clinton named him to a position in his administration.
After Bennet, the NPR board selected Delano Lewis, a corporate executive who started out his career working in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. After that, he continued his political career, working two years for liberal Republican U.S. Senator Edward Brooke, before returning to work for Democrats Walter Fauntroy (U.S. House Delegate) and Marion Barry (mayor). During Lewis’ tenure as NPR CEO, he actually made a political contribution to the Democratic Party! Unsurprisingly, he was named to a position in the Clinton administration soon after leaving NPR.
After Lewis, the NPR board chose Kevin Klose, who for the past six years worked in the Clinton administration (his tenure working for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors actually started in October 1992 during the George H.W. Bush administration, three months before Clinton took office).
After Klose left, the NPR board selected Ken Stern. He had been counsel for the Clinton/Gore 1996 presidential campaign and for Clinton’s 1997 inauguration. Shortly after that, he began work in the Clinton administration.
Other than the special exceptions of Don Quayle and Lee Frischknecht (see above), the only chief executive with no public history of partisan activities chosen by the NPR board was Vivian Schiller. After the Juan Williams firing debacle and the video revelation of anti-Republican sentiment by NPR fundraisers, the board forced out Schiller. As Schiller’s firing was unplanned, the NPR board selected current NPR executive Joyce Slocum as its interim CEO. Though she never worked in politics, Slocum had a history of making political donations--all to Democrats.
Most recently, the NPR board selected Gary Knell to lead NPR. Knell started his career working for Democratic politicians in California--a state house member and Governor Jerry Brown. He then worked on the staff of Democratic U.S. Senators, including on the Judiciary Committee for Sen. Ted Kennedy. Prior to coming to NPR, Knell worked for the public TV program provider Children's Television Workshop, during which he contributed to Democrat Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.
In the 36 years since the NPR board began recruiting leaders, only two years were occupied by a leader who didn’t have a public history of activity for the Democratic Party. By law, taxpayer-subsidized NPR is required to practice objectivity and balance in its news coverage. The repeated lackadaisical approach of NPR’s board in selecting partisan leaders reveals how little regard NPR has for the federal law governing it.