Ignoring NPR’s cultural problems will have consequences, says station GM

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NPR’s board has just received an independent law firm’s review of allegations of sexual harassment by top newsroom official Michael Oreskes and other employees. The most revealing insight is found in the final paragraph of the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius report:

With respect to our observations related to the overall culture at NPR, we suggest that NPR conduct a gender equity study of compensation and promotions. Additional forms of training should also be considered, including management skills training and civility training, preferably in person. NPR should also consider implementing an anti-bullying policy and related procedures for making complaints under that policy.

Morgan Lewis is the law firm that famously advised President Donald Trump that turning over daily control of the Trump Organization to Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric would handle any ethical questions over who had control of the businesses.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but when that same law firm suggests to you that civility training, management skills training, and an anti-bullying policy are needed for your workplace, it is not unreasonable to conclude you may need to change your newsroom culture.

Yet the remedies offered so far seem to focus more on policies and procedures than culture. That fact is driven home in the Washington Post’s follow-up story on the investigation findings. An anonymous NPR journalist spells out the distrust:

“There is a sense . . . of disappointment, immense frustration and deep anger,” said a senior journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for retaliation. “This report hasn’t helped bridge the huge distrust between staffers and senior management. How many times was Oreskes counseled or talked to? What has actually been learned?”

We all know that newsrooms under deadlines are stressful, and the environment requires a thick skin. I remember visiting the ABC News studios in New York City one weekend when I was a young reporter for a small rural radio station. As the weekend anchor prepared for the newscast, the newsroom suddenly erupted with palpable hostility as a male producer yelled at a young female producer.

My mouth was agape at the inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, and at how everybody else ignored it and kept working. The anchor did not even turn around. Unfortunately, over the years, I have seen a lot of that type of behavior. And the NPR report makes it clear that it happens in public radio’s highest echelons:

Staff members also reported several incidents in which they raised concerns about general workplace conduct to supervising employees, lower-level managers and, sometimes, senior managers in the newsroom without an adequate response. Conduct reported to us involved one physical interaction, physical confrontations, staff members who were screamed at repeatedly, and other conduct that left staff members feeling uncomfortable. Staff members reported that when they complained of these types of workplace conduct issues, they were treated as the ones with the problem or were left to manage around the troubling behavior on their own. Staff members expressed frustration that managers are not held accountable for responding to and addressing concerns that are raised about workplace conduct and culture.

Some organizations are able to consciously and intentionally overcome the hierarchical and power-dominated structures that lead to the normalization of such behaviors. It is not easy. There’s a reason many — perhaps most — organizations focus on policies, HR forms in triplicate, organizational charts and strategic plans. Those are all reduced to paper and provide personal and professional cover when failures happen.

Culture is different. It is value-based and reflects itself daily in behaviors of the moment. As management thought-leader Peter Drucker put it, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Sometimes, his quote has it dining on lunch. It probably ingests both. It also consumes anything else we commit to paper rather than to our behavior and values.

Culture is shaped at the top. NPR’s behavioral problems — as described in the report — follow that pattern. Those without power are regularly subjected to inappropriate behavior by some of those with perceived or real power. To date, the policies in place and people in power have failed to curb the problem.

The results are antithetical to NPR’s stated values, and NPR’s board has its work cut out for it. It is unclear to me whether the culture can be changed without a substantive change in the people who make up the current leadership culture. Perhaps leadership — both the board and NPR management — can change beliefs about how management should be hierarchical and power-infused.

If they don’t, the problems will continue, and NPR stations like ours will continue to be downstream of the publicity. Worse, valued NPR staffers will be harmed. If NPR’s leaders decide to simply use their positional power to implement policies and training rather than tackling NPR’s cultural problems, they will fail miserably, and NPR’s world-class journalism will suffer.

Peter Fretwell is GM of NPR member station KHSU in Humboldt, Calif.

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