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by Amanda Ostuni

On April 5, Sanford Professor Frank Bruni chatted with Susan Stamberg and Linda Wertheimer, two founding mothers of National Public Radio (NPR) for the 2022 Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture. Their appearance (via Zoom) coincides with the 50th anniversary of both Sanford and NPR, and the conversation was befittingly exciting. In discussing their careers, industry changes, what’s next, and more, the women, who helped build NPR and its All Things Considered program from the ground up, were unabashedly candid. As Sanford dean Judith Kelley said afterward, it was “Linda and Susan, unedited.”

Current events

After an introduction from Kelley, as the Penn Pavilion filled up, Bruni began by addressing current events. First up: coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Wertheimer – Zooming in with an appropriate background of her stocked bookshelf – marveled at how graphic the coverage has been compared to similar events in the past. She discussed the ethics versus impact of graphic war images, and lamented that as always, reporters still can’t offer answers about what’s coming next or how to resolve a given conflict. Stamberg, also Zooming in from home, noted more women are reporting from the conflict grounds than ever had the opportunity when she and Wertheimer were in the early stages of their careers.

Bruni then asked about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing. The women said, with disdain, that racism was evident. Wertheimer feels politicians are more vicious than ever, and struggles to understand why voters support people who are particularly cruel, racist, and unqualified. Voting, she said, is key to ending such vitriol. Stamberg thinks, as I understood her, the breakdown of institutions like churches and parents may be partly to blame for this discourse. Wertheimer shared similar sentiments later. I question their analyses, because churches and parents are today involved in divisive movements, but I understand the women spoke from a different avenue, as a generation of another era.

Women in Media

A major topic was the evolution of women in media. Wertheimer said when they joined NPR, it was essentially a startup, so uniquely, there was no culture of “a legion of men” in control. This struck me because today, diversity flourishes in startups – various businesses are forming by and for marginalized groups. I’m encouraged, then, to think while institutions are exclusive, there’s always hope in enterprise.

Image
Two women on large screen talking to man in chair.
NPR journalists Susan Stamberg (center) and Linda Wertheimer (right) talk with Sanford Professor Frank Bruni. Photo credit: Les Todd

Still, the women noted industry sexism. Wertheimer mentioned she and Cokie Roberts were denied jobs at NBC because the company already had women. She also said women’s opportunities to work stemmed from them costing less to hire than men. Regarding progress made, Wertheimer thinks women in broadcasting are showing that contrary to stigmatized perception, news women can be “both good and beautiful.” Candidly, she also wished they’d button up their shirts… but she acknowledges that she and Samberg can’t understand what news women today face, and vice-versa.

Samberg is glad to see an overall diversification of news rooms, saying, “[We’re in] a tectonic shake right now… noticing groups we hadn’t before, [being made to understand] other races, culture.”

The women discussed other industry changes, like increased competition, and young people keeping older publications up to date. Both women seem excited about the current mix of journalism platforms, though Samberg coolly reminded everyone she, Wertheimer, and NPR kicked off this landscape.

Motherly advice

Throughout the lecture, the women dispensed advice:

  • A great story writes itself, and a journalist’s main challenge is the ordering and structuring. I agree, and think that’s the fun part!
     
  • Aspiring journalists should be willing to throw themselves into any assignment, without fear.
     
  • Get a “solid liberal arts education” because it gives you a “sense of the breadth of the world and… helps shape your own world view,” said Samberg, particularly recommending learning American history and economics.

Their last wisdom bite answered my own question. Thinking about political polarization and distrust in media, I asked what these esteemed journalists think about media having to appear unbiased by offering two sides of a debate, in instances where there might just be a right and wrong.   

Wertheimer said journalism has long felt pressured to say “on the other hand,” but sometimes there indeed isn’t another hand. She suggested journalists be better about conveying that to the public. I was pleasantly surprised she took this stance – but I wonder if current news leaders would agree.

When legends talk changing times

Throughout the event, as they dispensed their wisdom, I noticed these women have two different identities influencing their perspectives. They are a product of their time, older women who lived through different cultural circumstances from today. Yet they are also progressive-minded trailblazers.  

I got the sense they are thus informed on journalism’s potential and nuances but face a harder time grappling with today’s industry problems. I also sensed their two sides create conflicting reactions to certain topics.

For example, Samberg praised diversification, but indicated there’s something overwhelming about it. Also, Wertheimer praised women in broadcast for their work but critiqued their image with an old-fashioned comment. The remark stirred the room, but no one seemed particularly upset.

Perhaps everyone accepts humans can only eschew the mindset of our eras so much. Or perhaps the audience easily laughed off the remark because we’re not used to seeing older women as authoritative legends reflecting on their work. That realization crossed my mind at least – how interesting it is to hear elder, bold women speak about bold careers that began in such vastly different times. Their insight was intriguing even when unexpected and complicated. It was a pleasure to discuss the world of journalism with two legendary women, in a way that was so real, raw, and indeed unedited.

 

Amanda Ostuni is a first-year Master of Public Policy student, with a concentration in Social Policy. She is passionate about all things human rights, but especially LGBTQ+ equality, gender equality, immigration and refugee rights, and addressing racism in criminal justice.

 

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