Turmoil at NPR after editor rips network for political bias

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Uri Berliner had worked at NPR for a quarter-century when he wrote the essay that would abruptly end his tenure. On April 9, the Free Press published 3,500 words from Berliner, a senior business editor, about how the public radio network is guilty of journalistic malpractice — for conforming to a politically liberal worldview at the expense of fairness and accuracy.

“It’s true NPR has always had a liberal bent, but during most of my tenure here, an open-minded, curious culture prevailed,” Berliner wrote. “We were nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding. In recent years, however, that has changed.”

The essay, whose arguments were disputed by NPR management and many staffers, plunged the network into a week-long public controversy.

Last week NPR’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, indirectly referenced Berliner’s essay in a note to staff that NPR also published online. “Asking a question about whether we’re living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions,” she wrote. “Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

The drama reached a pinnacle Wednesday, when Berliner resigned while taking a shot at Maher.

In his resignation letter, Berliner called NPR “a great American institution” that should not be defunded. “I respect the integrity of my colleagues and wish for NPR to thrive and do important journalism,” he wrote in the letter, posted on his X account. “But I cannot work in a newsroom where I am disparaged by a new CEO whose divisive views confirm the very problems I cite in my Free Press essay.”

Berliner’s comments have angered many of his now-former colleagues, who dismissed as inaccurate his depiction of their workplace and who say his faulty criticisms have been weaponized against them.

Berliner’s essay is titled “I’ve Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust.” On its face, it seemed to confirm the worst suspicions held by NPR’s critics on the right: that the legendary media organization had an ideological, progressive agenda that dictates its journalism. The Free Press is an online publication started by journalist Bari Weiss, whose own resignation from the New York Times in 2020 was used by conservative politicians as evidence that the Times stifled certain ideas and ideologies; Weiss accused the Times of catering to a rigid, politically left-leaning worldview and of refusing to defend her against online “bullies” when she expressed views to the contrary. Berliner’s essay was accompanied by several glossy portraits and a nearly hour-long podcast interview with Weiss. He also went on NewsNation, where the host Chris Cuomo — who had been cast out from CNN for crossing ethical lines to help his governor-brother — called Berliner a “whistleblower.”

Initially, Berliner was suspended for not getting approval for doing work for another publication. NPR policy requires receiving written permission from supervisors “for all outside freelance and journalistic work,” according to the employee handbook.

An NPR spokeswoman said Wednesday that the network does not comment on personnel matters. Berliner declined The Washington Post’s request for further comment.

In an interview Tuesday with NPR’s David Folkenflik — whose work is also criticized in the Free Press essay — Berliner said “we have great journalists here. If they shed their opinions and did the great journalism they’re capable of, this would be a much more interesting and fulfilling organization for our listeners.”

Berliner’s future at NPR became an open question. NPR leaders were pressed by staff in meetings this week as to why he was still employed there. And some reporters made clear they didn’t want to be edited by Berliner anymore because they now questioned his journalistic judgment, said one prominent NPR journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships. “How are you supposed to have honest debates about coverage if you think it’s going to be fodder for the point he’s trying to make?” the staffer said.

Berliner had written that “there’s an unspoken consensus” about stories to pursue at NPR — “of supposed racism, transphobia, signs of the climate apocalypse, Israel doing something bad, and the dire threat of Republican policies” — and that the network operated without friction, “almost like an assembly line.”

Several prominent NPR journalists countered that impression. “We have strong, heated editorial debates every day to try and get the most appropriate language and nuanced reporting in a landscape that is divisive and difficult to work in as a journalist,” Leila Fadel, host of “Morning Edition,” told The Post. “Media and free independent press are often under attack for the fact-based reporting that we do.” She called Berliner’s essay “a bad-faith effort” and a “factually inaccurate take on our work that was filled with omissions to back his arguments.”

Other staffers noted that Berliner did not seek comment from NPR for his piece. No news organization is above reproach, “Weekend Edition” host Ayesha Rascoe told The Post, but someone should not “be able to tear down an entire organization’s work without any sort of response or context provided, or pushback.” There are many legitimate critiques to make of NPR’s coverage, she added, “but the way this has been done — it’s to invalidate all the work NPR does.”

NPR is known to have a very collegial culture, and the manner in which Berliner aired his criticism — perhaps even more than the substance of it — is what upset so many of his co-workers, according to one staffer.

“Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep, writing on his Substack on Tuesday, fact-checked or contextualized several of the arguments Berliner made. For instance: Berliner wrote that he once asked “why we keep using that word that many Hispanics hate — Latinx.” Inskeep said he searched 90 days of NPR’s content and found “Latinx” was used nine times — “usually by a guest” — compared to the nearly 400 times “Latina” and “Latino” were used.

“This article needed a better editor,” Inskeep wrote. “I don’t know who, if anyone, edited Uri’s story, but they let him publish an article that discredited itself. … A careful read of the article shows many sweeping statements for which the writer is unable to offer evidence.”

This week conservative activist Christopher Rufo — who rose to fame for targeting “critical race theory,” and whose scrutiny of Harvard President Claudine Gay preceded her resignation — set his sights on Maher, surfacing old social media posts she wrote before she joined the news organization. In one 2020 tweet, she referred to Trump as a “deranged racist.” Others posts show her wearing a Biden hat, or wistfully daydreaming about hanging out with Kamala D. Harris. Rufo has called for Maher’s resignation.

“In America everyone is entitled to free speech as a private citizen,” Maher wrote in a statement to The Post, when asked about the social media posts. “What matters is NPR’s work and my commitment as its CEO: public service, editorial independence, and the mission to serve all of the American public.”

Maher, who started her job as NPR CEO last month, previously was the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. An NPR spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that Maher “was not working in journalism at the time” of the social media posts; she was “exercising her first amendment right to express herself like any other American citizen,” and “the CEO is not involved in editorial decisions.”

In a statement, an NPR spokesperson described the outcry over Maher’s old posts as “a bad faith attack that follows an established playbook, as online actors with explicit agendas work to discredit independent news organizations.”

Meanwhile, some NPR staffers want a more forceful defense of NPR journalism by management. An internal letter — signed by about 50 NPR staffers as of Wednesday afternoon — called on Maher and NPR editor in chief Edith Chapin to “publicly and directly” call out Berliner’s “factual inaccuracies and elisions.”

In the essay, Berliner accuses NPR of mishandling three major stories: the allegations of the 2016 Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, the origins of the coronavirus, and the authenticity and relevance of Hunter Biden’s laptop. Berliner’s critics note that he didn’t oversee coverage of these stories. They also say that his essay indirectly maligns employee affinity groups — he name-checks groups for Muslim, Jewish, queer and Black employees, which he wrote “reflect broader movement in the culture of people clustering together based on ideology or a characteristic at birth.” (Berliner belonged to the group for Jewish employees, according to an NPR staffer with knowledge of membership.) He also writes that he found NPR’s D.C. newsroom employed 87 registered Democrats and zero Republicans in editorial positions in 2021. His critics say this figure lacks proper context.

Tony Cavin, NPR’s managing editor of standards and practices, told The Post that “I have no idea where he got that number,” that NPR’s newsroom has 660 employees, and that “I know a number of our hosts and staff are registered as independents.” That includes Inskeep, who, on his Substack, backed up Cavin’s assessment.

Berliner also wrote that, during the administration of Donald Trump, NPR “hitched our wagon” to top Trump antagonist Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) by interviewing him 25 times about Trump and Russia. Cavin told The Post NPR aired 900 interviews with lawmakers during the same period of time, “so that’s 3 percent. He’s a business reporter, he knows about statistics and it seems he’s selectively using statistics.”

Cavin said some inside the organization agree with points Berliner made, even if they “don’t like the way he went about it. The irony of this is it tells you how diverse as an organization we are, in ideological terms.”

“There are a few bits of truth in this,” NPR international correspondent Eyder Peralta wrote on Facebook. But he said the essay “uses a selecting reading to serve the author’s own world views” and paints with “too broad a brush.”

“I have covered wars, I have been thrown in jail for my work,” Peralta told The Post, “and for him to question part of what is in our nature, which is intellectual curiosity and that we follow our noses where they lead us, that hurts. And I think that damages NPR.”

Some staffers have also been attacked online since the essay’s publication. Rascoe, who, as a Black woman host for NPR, says she’s no stranger to online vitriol, but one message after Berliner’s essay labeled her as a “DEI hire” who has “never read a book in her life.”

“What stung about this one was it came on the basis of a supposed colleague’s op-ed,” whose words were “being used as fodder to attack me,” Rascoe said. “And my concern is not about me, but all the younger journalists who don’t have the platform I have and who will be attacked and their integrity questioned simply on the basis of who they are.”

NPR, like much of the media industry, has struggled in recent years with a declining audience and a tough ad market. NPR laid off 100 workers in 2023, one of its largest layoffs ever, citing fewer sponsorships and a projected $30 million decline in revenue.

Going forward, some staffers worry about the ramifications of Berliner’s essay and the reactions to it. The open letter to Maher and Chapin said that “sending the message that a public essay is the easiest way to make change is setting a bad precedent, regardless of the ideologies being expressed.”

clarification

An earlier version of this article included a reference to Uri Berliner’s Free Press essay in which Berliner cited voter registration data for editorial employees of NPR’s D.C. newsroom. The article has been updated to clarify that this data was from 2021, not the present day.

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