October 14, 2010

The Michelle Norris Rule


If you’re a book publicist and you’ve ever tried to get one of your authors on an NPR program, you’ve no doubt been lectured, as have we (many times), about how NPR has one inviolable rule: No one can appear on more than one NPR show. Ever.

It’s known as the NPR “dibs system,” and what it dictates is that if a producer from one show claims “dibs” on a book — takes it under consideration for coverage on their program — no producer from another program can take it under consideration.

NPR’s reasoning for having the dibs system seems to be to keep its programs from sounding the same, which makes a kind of sense, until you consider that, well, this is a news organization, and whether hard or soft, at some point news is news, after all. So if something qualifies as newsworthy for one program, what? — no other program is allowed to cover that news? According to this reasoning All Things Considered can’t report on President Obama’s health care speech because Morning Edition covered it first.

Yet as I say, every book publicist in New York City has heard the drill: No author can appear on more than one of the four shows of which NPR controls editorial content — All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and Tell Me More.

Except, apparently, for Michelle Norris, who has a new book out, and who has appeared in support of it on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, and Tell Me More … and who happens to be the co-host of All Things Considered.

Alicia Shepard, NPR's ombudsman

Alicia Shepard, NPR's ombudsman

This has apparently led to so many complaints — probably from book publicists who’ve had to turn down one NPR producer while another dithered over their dibs, then decided no — that NPR’s ombudsman Alicia Shepard has had to step in, with a commentary admitting it is the network’s first-ever “fourfecta,” and detailing how, exactly, Norris came to enjoy 58 minutes of airtime to talk about her book: by being invited to, as it turns out, by producers who knew the rule and violated it anyway.

Shepard doesn’t seem too upset about it, though. Although she writes that the dibs rule “should apply to all guests,” she goes on to generally exonerate all concerned. “NPR, as a network, was not intentionally trying to promote [Norris’s] book,” she says, because each show’s producer “independently asked Norris to be on,” and none of them “said they did their interviews as a matter of professional courtesy.” (Nor, by the way, do any of the producers — or Shepard, for that matter — bring up the subject of whether Norris’s appearance constituted a conflict of interest.)

Michelle Norris

Michelle Norris

And beyond the producers, says Shepard, “You certainly can’t blame Norris,” even though she obviously knew she was violating the rule, too. According to Sheppard, “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.” (Shepard doesn’t explain what about this situation could possibly be seen as a criticism of Norris’s publisher.)

Norris herself, meanwhile, says “the criticism is unwarranted.” For one thing, she “feels NPR listeners are invested in NPR hosts and reporters, and might be especially interested in their books,” explains Shepard. Her dedication to those listeners, says Norris, meant that “In some cases I did NPR shows in lieu of other national shows ….” She doesn’t elaborate on what major shows she may have turned down, though, and elsewhere on the NPR site this post makes it seem as if she hasn’t turned down anything — it boasts about her 34-city tour, and her appearances on numerous NPR affiliates, and provides a clip of her appearance on NBC’s Today Show.

No matter. What it comes down to, Norris tells Shepard, is this: “I was invited four times and I said yes four times.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.