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NPR in turmoil after it is accused of liberal bias

ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                The headquarters for National Public Radio stands on North Capitol Street, in April 2013, in Washington. NPR is facing both internal tumult and a fusillade of attacks by prominent conservatives this week after a senior editor publicly claimed the broadcaster had allowed liberal bias to affect its coverage, risking its trust with audiences.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS

The headquarters for National Public Radio stands on North Capitol Street, in April 2013, in Washington. NPR is facing both internal tumult and a fusillade of attacks by prominent conservatives this week after a senior editor publicly claimed the broadcaster had allowed liberal bias to affect its coverage, risking its trust with audiences.

NPR is facing both internal tumult and a fusillade of attacks by prominent conservatives this week after a senior editor publicly claimed the broadcaster had allowed liberal bias to affect its coverage, risking its trust with audiences.

Uri Berliner, a senior business editor who has worked at NPR for 25 years, wrote in an essay published Tuesday by The Free Press, a popular Substack publication, that “people at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview.”

Berliner, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, castigated NPR for what he said was a litany of journalistic missteps around coverage of several major news events, including the origins of COVID-19 and the war in the Gaza Strip. He also said the internal culture at NPR had placed race and identity as “paramount in nearly every aspect of the workplace.”

Berliner’s essay has ignited a firestorm of criticism of NPR on social media, especially among conservatives who have long accused the network of political bias in its reporting. Former President Donald Trump took to his social media platform, Truth Social, to argue that NPR’s government funding should be rescinded, an argument he has made in the past.

NPR has forcefully pushed back on Berliner’s accusations and the criticism.

“We’re proud to stand behind the exceptional work that our desks and shows do to cover a wide range of challenging stories,” Edith Chapin, the organization’s editor-in-chief, said in an email to staff Tuesday. “We believe that inclusion — among our staff, with our sourcing, and in our overall coverage — is critical to telling the nuanced stories of this country and our world.” Some other NPR journalists also criticized the essay publicly, including Eric Deggans, its TV critic, who faulted Berliner for not giving NPR an opportunity to comment on the piece.

In an interview Thursday, Berliner expressed no regrets about publishing the essay, saying he loved NPR and hoped to make it better by airing criticisms that have gone unheeded by leaders for years. He called NPR a “national trust” that people rely on for fair reporting and superb storytelling.

“I decided to go out and publish it in hopes that something would change and that we get a broader conversation going about how the news is covered,” Berliner said.

He said he had not been disciplined by managers, though he said he received a note from his supervisor reminding him that NPR requires employees to clear speaking appearances and media requests with standards and media relations. He said he didn’t run his remarks to The New York Times by network spokespeople.

When the hosts of NPR’s biggest shows, including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” convened Wednesday afternoon for a long-scheduled meet-and-greet with the network’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, conversation soon turned to Berliner’s essay, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting. During the lunch, Chapin told the hosts that she didn’t want Berliner to become a “martyr,” the people said.

Berliner’s essay also sent critical Slack messages whizzing through some of the same employee affinity groups focused on racial and sexual identity that he cited in his essay. In one group, several staff members disputed Berliner’s points about a lack of ideological diversity and said efforts to recruit more people of color would make NPR’s journalism better.

On Wednesday, staff members from “Morning Edition” convened to discuss the fallout from Berliner’s essay. During the meeting, an NPR producer took issue with Berliner’s argument for why NPR’s listenership has fallen off, describing a variety of factors that have contributed to the change.

Berliner’s remarks prompted vehement pushback from several news executives. Tony Cavin, NPR’s managing editor of standards and practices, said in an interview that he rejected all of Berliner’s claims of unfairness, adding that his remarks would probably make it harder for NPR journalists to do their jobs.

“The next time one of our people calls up a Republican congressman or something and tries to get an answer from them, they may well say, ‘Oh, I read these stories; you guys aren’t fair, so I’m not going to talk to you,’” Cavin said.

Some journalists have defended Berliner’s essay. Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR’s former ombudsperson, said Berliner was “not wrong” on social media. Chuck Holmes, a former managing editor at NPR, called Berliner’s essay “brave” on Facebook.

Berliner’s criticism was the latest salvo within NPR, which is no stranger to internal division. In October, Berliner took part in a lengthy debate over whether NPR should defer to language proposed by the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association while covering the conflict in Gaza.

“We don’t need to rely on an advocacy group’s guidance,” Berliner wrote, according to a copy of the email exchange viewed by the Times. “Our job is to seek out the facts and report them.” The debate didn’t change NPR’s language guidance, which is made by editors who weren’t part of the discussion. And in a statement Thursday, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association said it is a professional association for journalists, not a political advocacy group.

Berliner’s public criticism has highlighted broader concerns within NPR about the public broadcaster’s mission amid continued financial struggles. Last year, NPR cut 10% of its staff and canceled four podcasts, including the popular “Invisibilia,” as it tried to make up for a $30 million budget shortfall. Listeners have drifted away from traditional radio to podcasts, and the advertising market has been unsteady.

In his essay, Berliner laid some of the blame at the feet of NPR’s former CEO, John Lansing, who said he was retiring at the end of last year after four years in the role. He was replaced by Maher, who started March 25.

During a meeting with employees in her first week, Maher was asked what she thought about decisions to give a platform to political figures like Ronna McDaniel, the former Republican Party chair whose position as a political analyst at NBC News became untenable after an on-air revolt from hosts who criticized her efforts to undermine the 2020 election.

“I think that this conversation has been one that does not have an easy answer,” Maher responded.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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