NPR: No Diversity Here

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An old reporter from the Portland Oregonian once chided me for listening to “state radio,” which I did while driving around the state to do research for a book. My friend has died since then. Too bad; he would have thoroughly enjoyed the flap over Uri Berliner’s exit from National Public Radio.

Berliner was a business news editor. In an essay posted on The Free Press, he argues that NPR’s obsession with racial and gender diversity, and what used to be called “political correctness,” has given it “the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the U.S. population . . . white and progressive, and clustered around coastal cities and college towns.” For his pains, Berliner was suspended for several days; afterwards, he resigned.

Berliner is no Trump supporter. He comes from a left-wing Jewish household; his mother was a secular Marxist who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s; later in life she came out as a lesbian, married a woman and lived in Manhattan. “I’m Sarah Lawrence-educated,” Berliner writes, “I drive a Subaru and Spotify says my listening habits are most similar to people in Berkeley. I fit the NPR mold. I’ll cop to that.”

But fitting in had its limits. For many of Berliner’s 25 years at NPR, he felt that NPR tilted a bit to the left, but not enough to be a problem. Even now, NPR is not as far left as Jacobin, The Nation or MSNBC; on the various charts of media bias it leans left by about the same amount that Reason and Fox Business lean right.

Essentially the story was that the Biden family had a stink of corruption. NPR’s management labeled the story a “distraction.”


In Berliner’s telling, NPR’s current lean came in reaction to Donald Trump: “His election in 2016 was greeted at NPR with a mixture of disbelief, anger, and despair.” Under the guidance of Representative Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee (and now a leading candidate for US Senate from California), NPR jumped on the story that Trump’s people had colluded with Russia. “By my count, NPR hosts interviewed Schiff 25 times about Trump and Russia,” Berliner writes. “The Schiff talking points became the drumbeat of NPR news reports.”

The Russian collusion story was never substantiated, but it was nicely anti-Trump. Then, in 2020, came a story that was substantiated: the discovery, on Hunter Biden’s laptop, of details of his cashing in on his dad’s name in offshore “business” transactions. Essentially the story was that the Biden family had a stink of corruption. NPR’s management, Berliner says, labeled the story a “distraction” during Biden’s election campaign, and refused to cover it. Berliner writes, “I listened as one of NPR’s best and most fair-minded journalists said it was good we weren’t following the laptop story because it could help Trump.”

The covid pandemic raised the question of where the virus had originated. Had it come from a wild animal market in Wuhan, as some said, or had it leaked from Wuhan’s virology lab? When health officials dismissed the lab leak theory, and their supporters labeled it right-wing nonsense, NPR accepted that the case was closed. It wasn’t, but NPR never gave respectful attention to the other side. (The New York Times also dismissed the lab leak theory — and its former medical reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr., owns up to that mistake in his new book, The Wisdom of Plagues.)

Of the 87 voters, all had declared themselves Democrats. All of them.


Also in 2020 came the “Black Lives Matter” riots. Here was a time for journalists to ask whether the progressives’ charge of systemic racism in America was real, and if so, how much effect it had. But at NPR, Berliner writes, CEO John Lansing declared that systemic racism was big, that NPR was infected by it, and that henceforth, “diversity” was to be the “North Star” of all that NPR did. “Race and identity became paramount in nearly every aspect of the workplace,” Berliner writes. “Journalists were required to ask everyone we interviewed their race, gender, and ethnicity (among other questions), and had to enter it in a centralized tracking system.”

Last year, NPR interviewed me, and their reporter had to ask me what my race was.

As at many other places, “diversity” at NPR did not include ideas and beliefs. “People at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview,” Berliner writes. “There’s an unspoken consensus about the stories we should pursue and how they should be framed. It’s frictionless — one story after another about instances of supposed racism, transphobia, signs of the climate apocalypse, Israel doing something bad, and the dire threat of Republican policies. It’s almost like an assembly line.”

Inside NPR, Berliner began to raise objections. “Throughout these exchanges, no one has ever trashed me,” he writes. “That’s not the NPR way. People are polite. But nothing changes.”

Berliner looked up the voter registrations of NPR journalists who lived in Washington DC, where voters register by party. Of the 87 voters, all had declared themselves Democrats. All of them. When Berliner pointed this out to his colleagues, he writes, “It was met with profound indifference.”

You can’t run a nonpartisan organization dealing with ideas and opinions if everyone who works there is of the same party.


Suppose we were talking about members of a jury pool, that a black man was on trial and that all 87 members of the jury pool were white. Would the progressives accept that? No. They would object: “But it’s not the same thing.” And yeah, it’s not. The consequences are radically different. But the issue of bias is the same.

Suppose a new CEO came along at NPR and said, “We’re going to replace you with 87 Republicans.” After the initial scoff — “If you can find 87 Republicans who can do our work” — there would be an eruption of protest. Every Democrat on the staff would be convinced, without knowing any of the prospective Republicans, that such a change would bias NPR’s work. And they would be right. It would. You can’t run a nonpartisan organization dealing with ideas and opinions if everyone who works there is of the same party.

I worked for more than 30 years at Seattle newspapers, part of that time in a business news job similar to Berliner’s and part of it on editorial pages. I was used to being surrounded by Democrats, which I was not, and occasionally a colleague further left. Most of my news colleagues were trying to be professionally objective. Their effort mattered: those who tried hard to be fair did a good job, most of the time; and they dismissed accusations of bias as politically motivated. Usually the accusations were politically motivated, but that didn’t make them false. Journalism involves judgment — of what the story is, how to frame it, what facts to cite, whom to quote, how to quote them, what tone to set, and whom to give the last word. Even when you try to be fair, your worldview is always trying to seep into your work. The way for an organization to manage this problem is to have people of different political views doing the work.

When you don’t have that, it shows. On November 26, 2019, I posted here some thoughts on my local NPR station. It was offering journalism, not propaganda, done in a professional way, I said, but I noticed a tendency to “present the world progressives care about, and define the issues as progressives define them . . . On the issue of immigration, for example, it’s all about the fate of asylum-seekers and ‘undocumented’ people. I can’t recall any explanation of why it might be good or in the American interest to control who comes into the country . . . If the subject is the workplace, it’s about how sexist it is . . . If it’s money in politics, it’s about how bad it is, and the need to repeal Citizens United. If it’s about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it’s about how great she is. Never a story like that about Clarence Thomas, or about the Constitution from an ‘originalist’ view.”

Even when you try to be fair, your worldview is always trying to seep into your work.


I once got into an internet argument with a law professor from a small college in New England. He was a progressive. Sensing the direction of my argument, he asked me whether I thought law schools should have “affirmative action” for originalists. I said, “Maybe they should.” He thought the idea was ridiculous. He was a professional professor; he assured me that he could teach the theory of originalism even if he thought it was wrong. Maybe you could, I said (though I doubted it). Some professors, and some journalists, can present both sides in a way that makes it impossible to tell which one they favor. But people with strong opinions usually can’t do this, or won’t. I thought of the two classes I’d had 50 years ago at the University of Washington in antitrust economics. One was by a Chicago guy and the other by a New Dealer. Each presented the world he thought was real, and the two worlds were very different.

Berliner’s accusations against NPR have elicited some pushback. I note, in particular, a piece on Slate by NPR staffer Alicia Montgomery, “NPR Is a Mess. But ‘Wokeness’ Isn’t the Problem.” She argues that NPR has lost audience share for reasons other than political orthodoxy. But after making that case, she gets to her main point: “And that’s what the core editorial problem at NPR is, and, frankly, has long been: an abundance of caution that often crossed the border to cowardice. NPR culture encouraged an editorial fixation of finding the exact middle point of the elite political and social thought, planting a flag there, and calling it objectivity.” She goes on, “Many sharp ideas just hit a wall of silence. And to be fair, some of that did seem politically motivated, before and after Trump was elected.”

That’s not a rebuttal. It’s a confirmation.

The bias of NPR is a shame, because a country of 330 million people does need a nationwide radio network of news, features and analysis, local and national, that rises above talk-show jabber and infotainment. I don’t think NPR needs to be owned or subsidized by the federal government. Run properly, I expect, it could support itself in some form. Even as “state radio,” it can be kept insulated from politicians. When Trump was president, he could never control NPR, which was a good thing. But NPR does need to control itself. If it is to be the kind of radio it claims to be, it needs to have diversity of viewpoint, of both the people it interviews and the people it employs.

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