Society / April 18, 2024

NPR’s Problems Won’t Be Solved by “Viewpoint Diversity”

An embattled NPR editor denouncing the network’s practices fails to understand them—or the practice of journalism.

Chris Lehmann
NPR

The National Public Radio headquarters in Washington, DC.

(Samuel Corum / Bloomberg)

I’ve never liked NPR. Throughout its long and venerable half-century run, the public radio network has served as a seamless delivery system for lifestyle smugness. When my mother would reflexively flip it on during long car rides in my adolescence, I’d greet its confident dispatches from the East Coast citadels of cultural consensus in the same manner I did all parent-approved meditations on civic life: as an elite monopoly’s hostile declaration of war on my attention span. Everything about its programming was clearly branded as something serious people should care about, starting with the name of its flagship show, All Things Considered. Yet it operated in a state of chronic self-congratulation. It tirelessly served to flatter the preexisting sensibilities of its audience, placidly assuring them that their taste preferences and worldview need never be challenged or revised in any meaningful way.

So I’ve been ambivalently following the network’s latest plunge into notoriety, in the wake of a J’accuse essay by NPR business editor and reporter Uri Berliner published in Bari Weiss’s Substack house of grievance, “The Free Press,” accusing his employer of succumbing to agenda-driven pandering over the sterner directives of fair-minded reporting. In broad outline, Berliner’s indictment strikes a chord of recognition: The NPR vantage on the world is twee and insular to a cringe-making degree. Apart from the odd Tiny Desk concert, very little on the network’s programming roster seems to escape elite editorial vetting, from the wall-eyed memoirist dispatches in Ira Glass’s This American Life empire to the know-it-all strains of its weekend quiz show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!

When the network delivered a five-day suspension to Berliner last week, it was easy for casual-yet-knowing media types to suppose that his indictment had struck a nerve, and that the managers had launched another inquisition against dissent and free-thinking in their ranks. That view of things seemed to gain additional plausibility when Berliner announced his resignation from his workplace over the last 25 years on Wednesday, citing a memo from NPR’s newly installed CEO Kathering Maher that called out his criticisms of his colleagues as “profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

But the problem with the Berliner affair, as with so many tail-chasing disquisitions on media bias, is that it ultimately rests on the same mythic understanding of the network’s mission that has earned it so much civilian media scorn. It’s right there in Berliner’s lament for the bygone era when the guiding ethos of the network was “nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding”: “No image generated more pride within NPR than the farmer listening to Morning Edition from his or her tractor at sunrise.”

Berliner’s lament for this bygone wholesome image is meant to signal a tragically sundered moment of aurally engineered national togetherness—never mind, of course, that a farmer in the capital-intensive world of American agribusiness would be dead center in NPR’s socioeconomic demographic. As recently as 2011, Berliner gloomily reports, NPR could claim that its audience “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, however, that balanced (if liberal-leaning) audience profile was in tatters, Berliner writes: “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.”

As far as moderates are concerned, the empirical case for the network’s fall-from-milquetoast grace is off: A 2 percent decline in “middle-of-the-road” listeners seems far from a crisis, particularly in the Trumpocene. It’s also unclear how the capacious designation of “very or somewhat liberal” translates into a loss of “traditional liberals,” who are apparently on some unknown point on the spectrum that doesn’t fall between “very” and “somewhat.” The conservative segment of NPR’s audience base clearly has fled—but their departure can scarcely be written off entirely to managerial wokeness, given that their entire movement feeds off the demagogic image of the media at large as “the enemy of the people.”

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Berliner nonetheless paints the network’s handling of the Trump ascendancy, and its allied memes and sub-movements, as one long betrayal of “public trust.” First, there was breathless coverage of the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia. The network conducted 25 interviews with Adam Schiff, former ranking member and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, on incremental developments in special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe. Alas, all for naught, Berliner writes: “When the Mueller report found no credible evidence of collusion, NPR’s coverage was notably sparse. Russiagate quietly faded from our programming.”

Contrary to Berliner’s awkward, yet supremely self-assured, lurch past evidence, there is no known planet in which “the Mueller report found no credible evidence of collusion.” Indeed, such evidence was abundant and troubling, but Mueller, a practiced Beltway insider, knew that the savvy move was to recommend that Congress pursue further legal action, which amounted to consigning his findings to the dead-letter office. Of course, Trump Attorney General William Barr vastly aided that process by preemptively dismissing Mueller’s findings ahead of his report’s full release. Yet NPR stands accused of that gravest of journalistic offenses—interviewing the chairman of a House committee integral to an ongoing investigation. (For the record, I don’t much like Adam Schiff, either, but this is the thankless position Berliner and Weiss have put me in.)

In Berliner’s discussion of the network’s coverage of the lab leak hypothesis and the origins of the Covid 19 pandemic, NPR is again held to be the inert outlet of state propaganda, stubbornly hewing to an account of the coronavirus’s natural origins as other news operations began lending credence to the lab leak theory. “At NPR, we weren’t about to swivel or even tiptoe away from the insistence with which we backed the natural origin story,” Berliner insists. This is no doubt news to National Review, which in spring of 2021 took detailed note of “NPR’s Complete About-Face on the Lab Leak Theory.”

The essay’s other key empirical shortcomings are aptly summarized in this post by Berliner’s colleague Steve Inskeep. But the core of Berliner’s complaint is an institutional and managerial one, as opposed to the ambiguous-at-best litany of news coverage running forever athwart right-wing narratology. Like many news executives, he charges, recently departed NPR CEO John Lansing swooned into a fever dream of wokeness in the wake of the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. In a company-wide memo, Lansing proclaimed that diversity was to be NPR’s “North Star.” Lansing went on to urge that public media leaders, “starting with me—must be aware of how we ourselves have benefited from white privilege in our careers. We must understand the unconscious bias we bring to our work and interactions. And we must commit ourselves—body and soul—to profound changes in ourselves and our institutions.”​​

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This is, admittedly, the sort of corner-office speak that many companies unleashed in that summer of racial reckoning—a kind of cost-free obeisance to the rhetoric of racial justice perhaps best symbolized by the awkward image of Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders donning Kente cloth scarves at the Museum of African American History. It’s also the sort of flourish one would expect in an NPR boardroom—but Berliner’s case that it has grievously distorted actual coverage at the network is thin.

As he’s forced to note himself, NPR’s CEO is first and foremost a fundraiser, who is not empowered to direct news coverage in any way. He suggests that some vague wording in the network’s SAG-AFTRA contract enjoining NPR managers to “keep up to date with current language and style guidance from journalism affinity groups” means that the union has now “ensured that advocacy groups are given a seat at the table in determining the terms and vocabulary of our news coverage.” But the clause in question concerns network management variably involved in news operations, not union workers producing coverage. NPR has introduced a rather myopic-sounding system of tracking the gender, ethnic, and racial identities of sources, but Berliner provides no evidence that such HR-style initiatives are driving news judgment or the allocation of editorial resources. In fact, prior to his resignation, Berliner’s misleading account of NPR’s coverage record and news judgments had already sparked a letter of protest from 50 employees demanding an official rebuke for the editor.

Berliner’s brief rests on a premise that typically gets overlooked in the recursive media bias debates that have plagued the American polis over the past half century. For NPR to return to its former farmer-gratifying heyday, Berliner argues, it must adopt a different North Star: that of “viewpoint diversity.” This is a common rallying cry among the beleaguered ranks of self-styled dissidents to the woke regime—free expression and the open exchange of ideas are stultifying beneath the suffocating demands of prim ideological conformity and racialized newspeak. But viewpoint diversity is a rickety construct, particularly when you introduce the truth claims of given viewpoints into the mix.

Worldviews are not categories of identity or race, as is the case for the discourse that Berliner is appropriating. What’s more, a central proposition of journalism has to be that certain viewpoints are wrong—that, for example, slavery is not a benign patrician social practice, and women are not property of their male spouses. Such views can’t be aired in a register of noncommittal reportedly bemusement, as though they were a curious folkway, a passing eccentricity, or part of the gorgeous American mosaic of viewpoints. The same obviously goes for the bullshit claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, the variable depiction of January 6 insurrectionists as tourists, martyrs, and patriots, and the geyser of lies that a certain former president continually spews on his Truth Social account.

The corollary of viewpoint diversity is the first-order failure that Berliner cites at the outset of his essay. “An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America.” That principle leads him to clinch his case against the network’s woke follies in the same market-populist terms: “Our news audience doesn’t come close to reflecting America. It’s overwhelmingly white and progressive, and clustered around coastal cities and college towns.”

But it’s a conceptual leap to suppose that an organ of journalism has to “reflect America,” even supposing there were some straightforward, commonly recognized definition of just what America is. News organizations aren’t representative bodies of government, charged with conveying a predetermined civic self-image to the agoras they operate in. Very much to the contrary, journalism works best when it tells audiences precisely what they don’t want to hear about the state of the republic—when its leaders are lying, stealing, and cheating, when the regulatory state has been carved up and bought and paid for, and when the barons of the press themselves connive in predatory power arrangements.

Indeed, part of the rationale for press-baiters targeting NPR has always been that, as a publicly funded institution, it should be more vigilantly devoted to blaring the chosen perspective of listeners back to them. But that is not, in fact, journalism; it’s marketing—and, bias lamentations aside, NPR’s share of public funding has been steadily diminishing under a tide of corporate underwriting. That’s why the company’s last major round of layoffs was attributed to a “sharp decline in revenues…from corporate sponsors.” So the identity crisis for the network is not a question of veering left, right, or center to faithfully reflect this or that version of a Real America; it is, rather, whether it will continue to be empowered to tell its listeners the unpleasant, unvarnished truth, regardless of which side of the tractor they wake up on.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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