NPR CEO slams editor who exposed bias. Looks like truth is ‘profoundly disrespectful’

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on the author’s blog Res ipsa loquitur. 

This weekend, I wrote a column on the continuing controversy at NPR and the bias detailed in a recent bombshell essay by respected editor Uri Berliner. The company has long been criticized for its partisan coverage, including running debunked stories. Now NPR CEO Katherine Maher has responded and appeared to confirm that the publicly supported media company has no intention of bringing greater balance to its coverage or editorial staff.

Berliner detailed the complete exclusion of any Republicans among the editors of NPR’s Washington office and various examples of raw bias in favor of Democratic narratives and claims.

Maher responded to none of these specific points in substance. Instead, she attacks Berliner as ‘profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning’ to his colleagues by calling out the company for its political bias.

In a memo Friday, Maher told the staff that Berliner attacked not only ‘the quality of our editorial process and the integrity of our journalists’ but ‘our people on the basis of who we are.’

In dismissing the criticism of bias, Maher adopted a spin that is common on law faculties where Republicans and conservatives have been largely purged. When confronted on the lack of ideological diversity, faculty often express disbelief that anyone would assume that they are biased simply because they continue to effectively bar republicans, libertarians, or conservatives.

Many also insist that there are more important forms of diversity than ideological or political perspectives. The result is, the faculties today largely stretch from the left to the far left in terms of diversity.

Maher offered a similar spin while suggesting (falsely) that Berliner was somehow opposed to a diverse workplace:

‘It is deeply simplistic to assert that the diversity of America can be reduced to any particular set of beliefs, and faulty reasoning to infer that identity is determinative of one’s thoughts or political leanings. Each of our colleagues are here because they are excellent, accomplished professionals with an intense commitment to our work: we are stronger because of the work we do together, and we owe each other our utmost respect. We fulfill our mission best when we look and sound like the country we serve.’

Maher’s response was hardly surprising. She was a controversial hire at NPR. Many had hoped that NPR would seek a CEO who could steer the company away from its partisan and activistic trend. The prospect could have brought moderates and conservatives back into NPR’s listening audience. Maher, however, was part of that trend.

Shannon Thaler at the New York Post reassembled Maher’s deleted social media postings including a 2018 declaration that ‘Donald Trump is a racist’ and a variety of race-based commentary. That included a statement that appeared to excuse looting.

She is also quoted for saying that ‘white silence is complicity.’ She has described her own ‘hysteric white woman voice.’ She further stated: ‘I was taught to do it. I’ve done it. It’s a disturbing recognition. While I don’t recall ever using it to deliberately expose another person to immediate physical harm on my own cognizance, it’s not impossible. That is whiteness.’

She further stated ‘I grew up feeling superior (hah, how white of me) because I was from New England and my part of the country didn’t have slaves, or so I’d been taught.’

In her latest message, Maher refers to the unique (and controversial) status of being a state-supported media outlet. She noted ‘We recognize that this work is a public trust, one established by Congress more than 50 years ago with the creation of the public broadcasting system. In order to hold that trust, we owe it our continued, rigorous accountability.’

Yet, she made it clear that both she and NPR will not change or alter the course of the company. Despite a falling audience (that is now composed of almost 70 percent self-identified liberals), Maher made clear that she sees no problem in its exclusion of Republicans as editors or its slanted coverage.

Reducing the size and diversity of your audience can be a good thing for editors or reporters if you have the government supporting your budget. You can then play to your smaller audience without any push back on coverage or accuracy.

As discussed in this weekend’s column, the question is why the public should finance this one media outlet over any of its competitors. NPR’s take on the news is largely the same as MSNBC or CNN. That is within its editorial judgment and NPR has every right to slant coverage like many news outlets today from the left or the right. Personally, I wish it would have retained a modicum of balance because I have been a fan of some of its shows. Yet, the media market has changed with consumer demands in favor of more opinion in coverage.

However, unlike those other outlets, NPR is being funded by tax dollars. While dismissing concerns over the exclusion of conservative or dissenting viewpoints, Maher suggests that NPR is still fulfilling its ‘public trust’ with its largely one-sided reporting.

In the end, the real question is not the bias of NPR but the fundamental question of why we should be subsidizing any media outlet. NPR has long held a curious position as America’s de facto state media outlet (with Voice of America). The recent controversy should allow us to have a meaningful debate over the need and danger of a state-funded media.

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