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It’s the kind of story that would excite any reporter: A liberal do-goodie institution known for promoting fairness is itself charged with discriminating against its female employees. But don’t expect prominent newswomen like Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Susan Stamberg to tell the story. National Public Radio (NPR) is itself in the lede of a story about failing to advance qualified women.

“The irony is, NPR loves stories like this,” says former NPR reporter and host Katie Davis, as she sits in the kitchen of the Adams Morgan row house she shares with her mother and a couple who are old friends. “Stories where there is inequity, incongruity. Does Ben & Jerry’s have a personnel problem—that’s an NPR story. I told them that they had to take a good long look in the mirror. Instead, they went into a deep-freeze of denial.”

On April 20, after 15 years of filing stories for NPR, Davis filed a $1.2-million lawsuit against the organization with the D.C. Superior Court. In it, she alleges that NPR discriminated against her by “denying her a permanent position as an NPR reporter or correspondent on the basis of her gender.” She further alleges that such treatment is “part of NPR’s pattern and practice of discrimination against women reporters and correspondents.”

“It began sometime in the spring of last year,” Davis says. “I was thinking about my job situation a lot. About why I didn’t have the job I wanted. About why I wasn’t being paid more. I was on the train coming back from New York. I made a list of all the people who had gotten permanent jobs who had come to NPR after me and/or had less experience.”

Davis made the list hoping that a common denominator—something her co-workers had done that she hadn’t—would jump off the page and suggest itself. Did she need to cover another election, get more foreign experience, vary her interview style? But the similarity that wafted up from Davis’s notebook was biological, not professional. Everyone on the list was a man.

“It seems incongruous, but it’s true,” says Davis. “A culture of discrimination can coexist. There are powerful, terrific women reporters at NPR. That doesn’t mean that they are paid the same amount as their male counterparts, or didn’t have to hire a lawyer to get the same amount of money.” She points to a recent Washington Post article that divulged the five highest salaries of NPR’s talent in 1992: Daniel Schorr ($100,025); Robert Siegel ($97,805); Bob Edwards ($95,337); Noah Adams ($90,994); Carl Kasell ($90,953); and Linda Wertheimer ($90,921). Not only did Totenberg, Roberts, and Stamberg not make the list, but Wertheimer is paid less than her All Things Considered co-hosts Siegel and Adams and newscaster Kasell.

NPR issued a brief statement calling Davis’ allegations “completely false.” The not- so-public NPR then issued its staff a gag order, saying, “There is no point in furthering a debate on this in the press.”

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Davis began free-lancing for NPR while still attending Barnard College. After graduation, she free-lanced out of the New York office for three years, when she joined the production staff of Weekend All Things Considered. In 1986, she was promoted to associate producer, and NPR began to send her overseas to train reporters in South Africa, Mozambique, and Russia.

But by September 1989, Davis had tired of working behind the scenes. She had been turned down for a permanent reporting job and, believing her chances would improve with more foreign reporting experience, took a one-year leave of absence from Weekend All Things Considered and boarded a plane to pay her dues.

For the first four months, Davis filed stories for NPR on a free-lance basis from Russia and Czechoslovakia, where she covered the Prague Revolution. She then relocated to Mexico City, and eight months later asked the network to hire her on as a permanent reporter at a salary of $35,000. Then-Managing Editor John Dinges and other NPR managers refused, saying Davis was asking for a “special deal” that they had no authorization to give her.

Though it likes to think of itself as the broadcast paragon of human dignity, NPR’s funding woes lead it to employ the equivalent of journalistic migrant workers. Free-lancers—the lucky ones—typically work for years before being offered a permanent job with benefits.

Stringing free-lancers along is a “terrible policy,” says Davis, adding that it’s exacerbated by the practice of giving permanent positions to men over more experienced women, or paying men more for the same work.

“For the first 10 years at NPR, I had no problem,” Davis says. “It’s been in the last five years while I’ve been trying to get on as a permanent staff reporter that I noticed the problem. I kept hitting up against a wall.” She alleges that men leapfrog over female co-workers and “don’t come in at entry-level jobs. A lot of my friends were making a lot more than I was for doing the same job. The workplace isn’t a participatory democracy, but it should be fair.”

In the mid-’80s, NPR itself commissioned a report that found Equal Pay Act violations. “What the law says is that men and women that perform substantially the same jobs must be paid the same,” says Davis’ attorney, Lynne Bernabei of Bernabei and Katz. Union pay scales set up very specific salaries for each type of job performed at NPR—reporter, newscaster, host, correspondent—with slight variations for experience. “They made some minor adjustments” after the report, which NPR has declined to release, says Bernabei, but men continue to be paid more than women. Bernabei says that since 1989, three other NPR women have gone to her with claims of sexual discrimination and pay-equity violations. Those cases were settled out of court.

“The fact that they were willing to go to court in this case indicates that they don’t understand pay-equity laws,” says Bernabei. “This is a straight shot for us.”

Immediately after NPR denied Davis a permanent reporting job in Mexico, the network hired Michael Sullivan, a male producer who, the suit alleges, had less seniority and ground reporting experience than Davis, for a permanent $53,000 staff position at the London bureau. Meanwhile, Davis persuaded the network to give her a $30,000 annual contract to continue to report from Mexico—$6,000 less than the base salary for a permanent reporter. To accept the contract, Davis had to resign as associate producer of Weekend All Things Considered, thus forfeiting her benefits.

In September 1991, the network called Davis back to D.C. to report for Morning Edition. She received excellent reviews, but the gig remained temporary. Meanwhile the network moved to open a bureau in Mexico. Although Davis had reported from there for two years and was fluent in Spanish, NPR never considered her for the job—it went to David Welna. Davis applied for a staff reporter job in Miami—it went to Derrick Reveron, who, the suit alleges, had far less radio experience than Davis and required extensive training.

In July 1992, Davis was appointed temporary host of Weekend All Things Considered. She hosted the program for 50 weeks, at which time the network forced her to take two weeks unpaid leave—union rules dictate that any job held for more than one year automatically becomes permanent. Davis returned to host the show for another six months. She was paid a base reporter’s salary of $46,200; Ira Glass, who was filling in as host of Talk of the Nation, was paid $62,000.

Davis received praise from many quarters, including All Things Considered creator William Siemering: “Your fine, sharp intelligence and curious mind exemplify the ideal qualities for a public radio host.” The 1994 edition of NPR’s Best Interviews of the Year included more than six of Davis’ interviews, more than any other host.

“Katie worked hard to master the art of hosting, and as one of the nicest and most popular individuals at NPR, she had the best wishes of almost everyone in the organization,” writes Tom Looker in The Sound and the Story: NPR and the Art of Radio. “But a quiet discussion continued at NPR throughout Katie’s tenure as to whether or not she would make it as a host. Her voice, which was fine for a reporter, sometimes sounded rather young and overeager for a host. While some liked the nontraditional quality of Katie’s presentation, others felt that she lacked that intangible sense of authority that is so important to someone who anchors a program.”

If there was debate over her style, Davis says she was unaware of it until the network decided to install Daniel Zwerdling as the permanent host. Davis was then told by Senior Editor Robert Rand that she did not have “the authority or presence to be a host.” Zwerdling, however, was praised by Bill Buzenberg, vice president for news and information, for “changing the tone” of the program by “giving it a relaxed, unique flavor, not unlike [his] personality.”

What is the voice of NPR, that ephemeral voice of brainy authority? One NPR news honcho told Davis that “authoritative” meant sounding “like Walter Cronkite,” which Davis notes is a tough standard for any woman to meet. “What I think is at work is a very narrowly defined particular idea of authoritative—a male, deep, basso profundo voice. Whereas authoritative can also be integrity and profundity of purpose. They see me, perceive me as young, friendly, direct, and don’t take me seriously,” says Davis. “I feel that if they had just listened to my work and not seen me in the halls, things might have been different.”

Still, she says that when they picked Zwerd ling to host Weekend All Things Considered, “I didn’t scream. I thought, sit tight.” She was promised by Buzenberg and others, she says, that NPR would find her a permanent job. “I can understand if they wanted another kind of personality to be host. But not only didn’t they find me a permanent job, they didn’t look. It wasn’t one month later that I went to a lawyer, it was one year later,” after the network again promoted junior males to permanent positions that Davis had applied for.

“I was nice and patient for five years,” says Davis. “I think that they always thought that no matter what they offered or did, I would just hang in there. They thought I was bluffing. Bluffing when I got a lawyer, bluffing when I threatened to take it to court. And it was, “Oh my goodness, what’s gotten into Katie Davis?’ ”

She wasn’t bluffing. After protracted negotiations, the network eventually did offer her a permanent reporting position that came with so many strings attached (including playing second fiddle to a much junior man) that “frankly it felt like a demotion.” Twelve prominent staffers wrote a letter urging NPR “to make every attempt to resolve its differences with Katie. She has made tremendous contributions to the company over the years and is valuable to all of us here at NPR.” But the network refused to budge.

“NPR can ill-afford to lose her; her keen reportorial skills and sensitivity to radio are in the best of NPR tradition,” says Looker. The network’s failure to give Davis a permanent job after her stint as host is “mystifying,” he says, but probably aggravated by budget constraints and an increased emphasis on cheaper, more hard-news formats.

But, he adds, Davis would never make a claim of sexual discrimination unless she believed it to be true. “Trusting her as I do as a reporter, this is not frivolous,” says Looker. “She’s very honorable, and has been for years dedicated to the organization. This has to be taken seriously.”

Davis still holds out hope that she could return to NPR, though she admits that possibility is increasingly unlikely.

“It’s sad that my tape recorder and my microphone are in the closet,” Davis says. “But I know I have a story to tell.”