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What did Uri Berliner mean by “We [NPR] lost America’s trust?”

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I doubt buckets of tears were shed at NPR when Uri Berliner resigned from his job as senior business editor last week. A 25-year veteran with the organization, Berliner had penned, the previous week for Bari Weiss’s The Free Press substack, a pained but rather savage critique of the NPR culture, focusing on the outlet’s loss of America’s “trust” and its failure to maintain “diversity of viewpoint.” It was, to put it bluntly, too “woke” and too liberal.

Berliner’s takedown, titled “I’ve Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust,” was predictably not well received among his NPR colleagues, with several current and former NPR headliners publishing equally pointed responses to both his overall thesis and its factual underpinnings. Judging by his tweeted letter of resignation, which explicitly fingered new NPR CEO Katherine Maher, it did not go over well with his boss either.

Whether at The New York Times, The Washington Post, or NPR, newsroom turmoil and internecine strife tend to rivet the journalism community and bore pretty much everyone else — though there’s generally a good deal of schadenfreude among political opponents with their own bones to pick. Which is one reason it’s very rare for insiders to go public with such “observations,” unless they’ve been fired or forced out first.

In Berliner’s case, having thoroughly perused his Free Press piece, I am prepared to believe that he felt he was saying something that needed to be said and his NPR bosses and colleagues had been determined to ignore. It is, indeed, a lonely feeling to slip so far out of step with an organization you’ve so long called home — especially when you believe it’s the organization that’s done all the slipping. 

Perhaps Berliner sincerely believed he could launch this frontal attack from outside the moat, be heard and appreciated, and continue on in his role; perhaps he knew he had to go and this accusatory mea culpa was his parting shot. In any event, it was, among and even beyond the NPR audience, a bombshell — very much worth thinking and talking about as the media goes through its most troubled and soul-searching time in at least living memory.

The questions we’re all, in one way or another, addressing: Is Berliner right, wrong, or some of both? Has NPR’s quest for demographic diversity led it to become politically monolithic, and has this transformation dramatically undermined the trust that “America” once purportedly placed in it?

Low Fidelity?

The first thing I want to do, before attempting to answer these questions, is to clear away the weeds. Berliner makes numerous questionable assertions and frequently presents facts devoid of crucial context. Take, for instance, the first of three examples he offers of purported bias: NPR’s coverage of what became known as “Russiagate.” 

After pointing out that NPR had interviewed “Trump’s most visible antagonist,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), “by my count … 25 times about Trump and Russia,” in which “during many of those conversations, Schiff alluded to purported evidence of collusion,” Berliner continues, “But when the Mueller report found no credible evidence of collusion, NPR’s coverage was notably sparse. Russiagate quietly faded from our programming.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple devotes virtually an entire column to a critical analysis of this one claim. He begins by providing crucial context absent from Berliner’s account: Yes, Schiff was interviewed 25 times (he was, after all, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee), but that was out of 900 interviews NPR did from 2017 through 2019 with congressional lawmakers, including Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Jim Jordan (R-OH).

After presenting a more nuanced examination than Berliner’s of the content and thrust of NPR’s interviews with Schiff and other high-profile figures, Wemple addresses the matter of the Mueller report itself, primarily the fact that, as he notes, the special counsel’s “investigation didn’t apply the concept of ‘collusion’ in its work.” That is, Mueller didn’t find collusion because he didn’t look for collusion. 

As Wemple, and others, have also been quick to point out, the report, far from “exonerating” Trump, was replete with examples of “scandalous activity,” certainly enough to justify the intense journalistic concern over Russian influence in the 2016 election.

For what it’s worth, my own reaction at the time as an NPR listener was frustration that more was not made of Attorney General Bill Barr’s maneuver to heavily redact, misleadingly “summarize,” and fatally undercut the 450-page report. To me, the story, or one of the most disturbing elements of it, was longtime GOP fixer Barr acting more like Donald Trump’s private attorney (and PR firm) than the nation’s attorney general, and more or less getting away with it because the media, including NPR, was still extending too much courtesy to Trump’s corrupted minions.

Many other of Berliner’s assertions — including his tally that NPR’s DC newsroom was comprised of 87 registered Democrats and zero Republicans (leaving aside the question of how on earth he would know) — have been debunked. NPR’s defenders, both inside and outside the organization, have pounced on issues of both fact and interpretation throughout Berliiner’s posting, while NPR critics — mainly on the right, though a few on the far left — have generally cheered.

Mea Culpa?

But none of that gets to what I see as the crux of the matter: What does Berliner mean by “lost America’s trust” and, to the extent that any such loss can be substantiated, how much of it is NPR’s fault?

To look at the first part first, Berliner takes as his most telling measure of America’s trust the political leaning of NPR’s audience:

Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large. Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal.

By 2023, the picture was completely different: only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal. We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals. (emphasis added)

Leaving aside the somewhat apples-to-oranges math of the comparison (the 2023 numbers sum to 100, those in 2011 to only 86), the trend here is actually quite different from Berliner’s characterization. The liberal audience ballooned and the conservative audience shrank dramatically — but the moderates more or less held their own. You could, I suppose, call a 2 percent dropoff (from 23 to 21 percent) “losing moderates,” but it’s pretty negligible, most likely within the margin of error of the poll. And there’s no basis at all for his claim that NPR lost “traditional liberals.”

No, what seems to have transpired is that Trumpocene MAGAs (née conservatives) fled NPR, more liberals found a home there, and moderates pretty much stayed put.

I believe our job as political journalists is to ask the kind of questions and make the kind of observations and connections that will help readers cut through the inevitable spin and crap inherent to the political arena. We serve, in a sense, as river guides on a very frothy river, full of bends and rapids and falls.

Now the question is what might account for such a trend? Did NPR, as Berliner concludes, evolve into “an openly polemical news outlet serving a niche audience” — replete with in-your-face wokeness and DEI at gunpoint? Was its coverage of Trump, COVID-19, climate, abortion, culture, the economy, foreign affairs, and elections so biased, unfair, selective, and polemical that it morphed into nothing better than a mirror image of Fox News or Newsmax or OANN?

That is not the NPR I’ve been listening to in recent years. My impression is rather that the organization, in much of its programming, wisely (if belatedly) let go of the US media’s reflexive embrace of both-sides-ism and began serving the vital purpose of calling out the schemes and threats, and standing up for non-alternative facts in the face of the lies emanating from Trump and those devoted to his quest for absolute power.

In this regard, NPR is now not all that different from, say, The Bulwark, a collection of traditional conservatives who, continuing to believe in and supremely value democracy itself, relentlessly call out the threats posed by Trump and his MAGA movement. Hardly a “woke” or “polemical” enterprise, The Bulwark! And yet it is much in line with NPR when it comes to the positions they take in this fraught political moment.

Our Morphing Mission

I believe our job as political journalists is to ask the kind of questions and make the kind of observations and connections that will help readers cut through the inevitable spin and crap inherent to the political arena. We serve, in a sense, as river guides on a very frothy river, full of bends and rapids and falls.

When someone like Trump comes along — spewing lie after lie and successfully manipulating the psyches of many millions, thereby threatening essentially all we hold dear (including even a modicum of respect for the truth and non-alternative facts) — our job as guides should morph (and the morphing has been too gradual in my view) into high-protection, lifeguard mode. 

We find ourselves both playing constant whack-a-mole with the lies and deceptions and trying rather desperately to provide context and perspective — to remind readers what is at stake and how the too easily ignored or forgotten swatches of tendentious words and deeds tie together into a grand assault on the very concept of verifiable truth. 

There is a whole circus of very dangerous clowns out there reaching for power, more power, and even absolute power by any means at hand. It is not my fault, your fault, or NPR’s fault if their tent is pitched on one side of the political divide.

We become something like war correspondents: If the political war crimes are being committed almost exclusively by one side, if the warfare is dangerously asymmetrical, we not only report on that, we quite naturally get drawn into some attempt to restore the balance.

No serious, self-respecting journalist began by carrying water for the Democrats (however we might vote), but — from NPR to The Bulwark to WhoWhatWhy — it has become more difficult to distinguish our work from those who do carry such water. This I lay squarely at the feet of Trump and those he has taught so well how to be and do. There is a whole circus of very dangerous clowns out there reaching for power, more power, and even absolute power by any means at hand. It is not my fault, your fault, or NPR’s fault if their tent is pitched on one side of the political divide.

Objectivity in journalism has come, perforce, to mean something very different from what it meant for decades pre-Trump and pre-MAGA. In the words of WhoWhatWhy Editor-in-Chief Russ Baker, “We’re nonpartisan, but we’re not blind.”

What Is the Sound of One Hand Wringing?

There’s an asymmetry as well when it comes to self-appraisal. I don’t see any hand-wringing on the right about how Fox News has gone biased and lost the trust of its audience. No, the right-wing propaganda outlet just marches on telling lies, flinging innuendo, cherry-picking, and distorting reality, apparently without a qualm. But, per Berliner, NPR is supposed to soul search itself to death over its “bias,” over its “wokeness,” over having a staff more diverse demographically than politically, over dropping hints that our democracy is endangered, or giving Joe Biden a whiff of credit for his accomplishments? The warfare is asymmetrical enough without such unilateral disarmament.

Yes, NPR has moved “left” in response to an increasingly open assault on democracy from what was once the far-Right and is now mainstream MAGA. And NPR is not alone. Because, given the nature of “right” and “left” and how they serve to define each other, it is now “left” to defend democracy and call out those — beginning with Trump but reaching deep into the ranks of “conservative” office-holders and media — who pose a deadly threat to it.

Returning to Berliner’s “trust” numbers, and the trend that he attributes wholly to NPR’s movement, it seems far more likely that it is not NPR but “America” that has done the moving.

Listeners morphing from “conservative” to MAGA, listeners rallying around the peg in the ground Trump has made of himself, would of course drop away from the NPR audience, having lost their “trust” in its guidance. And “liberal” listeners, who have come to see Trump as a menace and existential peril, will of course come more deeply to appreciate NPR as a vital, if only partial, refuge from both the right-wing media machine and the false-equivalence both-sides-ism that still bedevils much of the mediaverse. 

And apparently the “moderates” — Berliner’s wishful analysis notwithstanding — haven’t gone anywhere. Which I take to be a good sign when it comes to assessing what proportion of the river-riding American public has fallen overboard.


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