Is NPR Trying to Sell Michele Norris' New Book?

All Things Considered host Michele Norris has done what no other author has done on NPR: scored a "fourfecta" with her new book.

Norris has been able to promote her memoir on each of the four shows that NPR produces: Morning Edition (ME), All Things Considered (ATC), Talk of the Nation (TOTN) and Tell Me More (TMM). They are the only news shows where NPR is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The Grace of Silence: A Memoir by Michele Norris

The Grace of Silence: A Memoir           By Michele Norris hide caption

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  • ME host Steve Inskeep spoke with her for 8 minutes on Sept. 20.
  • Later that day, Norris did a 4-minute essay for her show, ATC.
  • On Sept. 27, TOTN interviewed Norris for 30 minutes.
  • Three days later, TMM spoke with Norris for 16 minutes.

After spending a day searching, NPR librarians could not find any other author who appeared on all four programs.

"It's not unheard of for writers to appear on more than one program," said librarian Hannah Sommers. "In 2009 [NPR religion correspondent] Barbara Bradley Hagerty appeared on three shows (TOTN, ATC, Weekend Edition Sunday) to discuss material related to "The Fingerprints of God." Hagerty also did reported pieces on ATC and ME based on her book, but that was because her book explored new ground on the brain and spirituality.

Every week, NPR produces 39 hours of original news programming. Norris and The Grace of Silence received 58 minutes over a two-week period after the memoir came out in mid-September.

This has not escaped the ears of several listeners.

"I was flabbergasted and disappointed with the air time given by NPR to Michele Norris to promote her new autobiography, not only on Morning Edition (via interview) but then on ATC (via her own commentary)," Hollie Hopkins of Louisville, KY wrote even before the other two appearances.

"This is a blatant conflict of interest for NPR and for Ms. Norris," she continued. "I have enjoyed her on the air over the years, and hope to hear her again in a professional capacity. But NPR should not serve as a shill for its own employees' private commercial endeavors. I had to wonder whether NPR would have given the book that much (if any) air time had the author not been one of its own."

This issue of airtime comes up regularly as NPR staffers write books. Most of the time it's in check, says Ellen Weiss, senior vice president for news.

"While Michele's appearances were all of great value to the audience," said Weiss, "normally we do a better job of internal communications in order to avoid so much overlap on guest appearances."

Norris' book grew out of an NPR reporting project in York, PA that she and Inskeep did on race prior to the November 2008 presidential election.

Norris said she felt lucky to share her journey with listeners, but that the criticism is unwarranted. "I was invited four times and I said yes four times," she said. "In some cases I did NPR shows in lieu of other national shows because I felt a strong loyalty to NPR."

She added that she feels NPR listeners are invested in NPR hosts and reporters, and might be especially interested in their books.

"I am not suggesting that the work of NPR hosts or reporters is of greater merit or more interesting," said Norris. "Just that listeners come to the table with a greater awareness of their work and as a result interest in the stories they tell beyond the studio."

In a previous posting, I explained that NPR has a "dibs" system that tries to prevent a guest promoting a book, CD or movie on many shows. It can get repetitive to hear about the same book or movie on several shows.

One listener questioned the "dibs" system in relation to Norris.

"A few weeks ago you wrote a piece on Harry Shearer and the 'Dibs List,'" wrote Joe Schifano. "You justified NPR only having Shearer on one program rather than on the big news magazines. NPR was simply following the guidelines it had set up 5 years ago. Recently I have seen Michele Norris appear on many of the NPR programs. So my question – Does the Dibs List only apply to non-NPR employee guests?"

It should apply to all guests. But this time it didn't.

As an author, you want as much publicity as you can get. Norris is currently on a 34-city book tour, where she is also appearing as a guest on local public radio stations. That is a station decision; NPR has no control over guests on local stations.

There were different reasons for having her on.

Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan said he was aware that Norris had already appeared on the two flagship shows.

"We decided to have her on in order to prompt a discussion of family secrets related to race," said Conan. "I found the fact that her father never told, not just his daughter, but his wife that he'd been shot by a white cop in Birmingham fascinating, and hoped to elicit stories like that from our listeners."

TOTN also interviewed Jim Bagget, who runs the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at the Birmingham Public Library. Bagget helped with Norris' research. Norris and Bagget were together in Birmingham for this segment.

Bagget spoke, said Conan, "not just to the case of Michele's father, but to the broader issues of Jim Crow in post-war Birmingham."

Norris added that she wanted to appear on TOTN because it gave listeners a chance to call in live and ask questions.

Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, agreed that it's valid to question so much airtime for an NPR employee hawking a book.

"I cannot speak for other shows but we had her on because the story dovetailed so neatly with our coverage of Isabel Wilkerson's book, The Warmth of Other Suns," said Martin.

Martin had two conversations with Wilkerson whose book deals with African American migration patterns.

"We saw Michele's as a sidebar to that because it is the micro to her macro," said Martin. "It shows how that story played out with one family. We did hesitate at first, as her publisher will tell you, because we were fourth in line and generally I resist that. We packaged it together because we felt it amplified the story."

Neither Conan nor Martin said they did their interviews as a matter of professional courtesy.

"I personally don't buy into the concept. We did not cover (NPR executive editor) Dick Meyer's book, nor Scott Simon's," Martin said in an e-mail. "We HOPE to do Scott Simon's book later because the theme—adoption—fits into our coverage mission (multicultural families)."

Scott Simon, who is white and his French wife, adopted two girls from China.

Martin also noted that there is little overlap between the stations that air TMM and TOTN, so only a minority of listeners might have heard both interviews.

Publishers often are more likely to give a book contract if they know the author has avenues to promote it. That is a plus for NPR staffers, if only because mentioning on a book cover that the author is an NPR staffer tends to provide a built-in audience.

Listener Hollie Hopkins said she thought it was a conflict of interest for Norris to get airtime on a commercial project. I disagree.

NPR, as a network, was not intentionally trying to promote her book. Each show's executive producer independently asked Norris to be on. However, there should have been better coordination and more discussion about how to handle Norris' book.

You certainly can't blame Norris. She's done nothing wrong. She wanted to share her research with listeners and, of course, promote her book. This is not a criticism of Norris or her publisher. In fact, I say good for her.

But I don't believe any non-NPR author would have gotten three interviews and the opportunity to write a personal essay.

Now is a good time for NPR to formulate a policy on how to handle future staff books. Such a policy, making clear that NPR employees should be treated the same as other authors, will go a long way toward enhancing credibility and showing that NPR isn't favoring its authors and artists over others.

ADDENDUM:

Here are more examples Sommers culled from the data where non-NPR authors got a healthy share of NPR air. This is not a complete list, just examples for reference. Fresh Air is not included.

  • Adam Gopnik / Paris to the Moon / TOTN, WESAT, ME / 2000-2001
  • Matt Weiland / State by State / NN, WATC, TOTN / 2008
  • Lee Thomas / Turning White / TMM, NN, BPP / 2007
  • Atul Gawande / Complications / WESAT, TOTN, Tavis Smiley / 2002-2003
  • Steven Levitt / Freakonomics / NN, WESAT / 2005
  • Joseph Sebarenzi / God Sleeps in Rwanda / TMM, WATC / 2009
  • Nina Jablonski / Skin: A Natural History / WESAT, NN / 2006-2007

NN: News and Notes, which is no longer on air.

BPP: Bryant Park Project, which also is no longer aired.

WATC: Weekend All Things Considered.

WESAT: Weekend Edition Saturday.

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