From the editor: NPR's Uri Berliner paid a big price for speaking out; we owe him a listen

Andy Warhol predicted everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. For former NPR staffer Uri Berliner, the spotlight burned hot for more than a week.

The reverberations in newsrooms across the country, I predict, will last a lot longer.

For those unfamiliar, Berliner was a senior business editor at National Public Radio. In an April 9 essay published in The Free Press, he criticized NPR for losing its way during the Trump presidency, blaming a lack of viewpoint diversity and an increasing lean toward advocacy journalism. As examples, he cited the network’s reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia, which he deemed unbalanced, and said NPR initially treated the discovery of Hunter Biden’s laptop as a distraction.

A view of the National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters on North Capitol Street in Washington, DC. The broadcaster parted ways with senior business editor Uri Berliner after he wrote an essay accusing his employer of liberal bias.
A view of the National Public Radio (NPR) headquarters on North Capitol Street in Washington, DC. The broadcaster parted ways with senior business editor Uri Berliner after he wrote an essay accusing his employer of liberal bias.

"An open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America," Berliner wrote.

NPR’s critics and a host of conservative pundits celebrated Berliner as a whistleblower. On his Truth Social platform, Trump called NPR a “liberal disinformation machine” and demanded the government pull its funding. NPR went into full damage-control mode. Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep took to his Substack and wrote what amounted to a line-by-line rebuttal, offering a master’s class in impeaching a witness.

Eight days later, Berliner resigned, ending his 25-year career at NPR.

As a journalist who spent five years working for another Washington-based national news outlet, USA TODAY, and one who often writes in this publication about the need for the press to rebuild trust, I’d like to share some thoughts on Berliner’s essay and the aftermath. But first, some disclaimers. My opinions are my own, based on my experiences; I don’t speak for my employer or my colleagues, past or present. Also, I serve on the board of Cincinnati Public Radio, which airs NPR programming locally. And finally, this is a complicated and nuanced topic for me to cover in a 900-word column. (Berliner’s essay was 3,500 words, for comparison.) I encourage you to read Berliner’s piece in its entirety, along with Inskeep’s response and the letter from NPR President and CEO Katherine Maher to all staff, which was published on NPR’s website. With that out of the way …

From the editor: Candid reflection from an ‘enemy of the people’

Berliner’s essay certainly can be picked apart, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s overarching clarion call rang true for me, reminding me of times when the political polarization of our country uncomfortably seeped into the newsrooms I’ve worked in.

At USA TODAY, I was one of the editors who oversaw a report in 2016 that analyzed Trump’s involvement in more than 3,500 lawsuits over three decades, an unprecedented number for a presidential candidate. One high-ranking editor, who is no longer with the organization, took things a step too far in my opinion when she said in a planning meeting that she hoped the story would derail Trump’s campaign. She, of course, was entitled to her own political viewpoint, but those of us who choose this profession must put personal convictions aside and present the facts without judgement − which ultimately the story did, a testimony to the professionalism of the reporters who did the heavy lifting and worked to present a balanced report. But the "unspoken consensus" that Berliner described at NPR can easily take over a newsroom if left unchallenged.

My concern with Berliner’s essay is that it leads the reader to believe the introspection he calls for isn’t happening at NPR. Based on the response from Maher and NPR staffers I know personally, it has been, and I can vouch that it’s happening in the company that employs me, as well. In 2021, The Enquirer participated in an effort called Re-engaging the Right, during which hundreds of conservative news consumers were interviewed so we could better understand perceptions of bias and how to restore trust. We learned a lot, and I hope it’s evident in our political reporting today. But we’re not perfect, and I always appreciate it when readers take the time to point out where we’ve fallen short.

One of my takeaways from the Re-engaging the Right feedback was that national news organizations often fail the sniff test when accused of promoting an agenda. Here’s an exercise you can try to illustrate the point.

Go to NPR.org and search “immigrant.” When I did so this week, the first story that came up was about a proposal in Massachusetts to allow migrants to work legally, regardless of their immigration status. The rest of the search results also could be described as sympathetic to migrants. Do the same at FoxNews.com. The top result when I searched was a story about an illegal immigrant charged with a sex crime in Connecticut, and the next five items also were crime stories involving immigrants. Try this exercise with other politicized search terms, and you’ll see a similar pattern. Viewed individually, the stories are factual and stand up to review. But taken as a whole, it’s obvious which way each news source leans politically, and that’s a problem.

It's too soon to arrive at a final thought on the Berliner dust-up, but one thing is clear: NPR and other news organizations should resist the urge to circle the wagons and err on the side of listening. There are lessons to be learned.

Enquirer Executive Editor Beryl Love writes a biweekly column that takes you behind the scenes at The Enquirer. Occasionally, he shares his thoughts on local issues, particularly as they pertain to a free press and open government. Love also serves as regional editor for the USA TODAY Network Ohio. Email him at blove@enquirer.com. He can’t respond personally to every email, but he reads them all.

Beryl Love
Beryl Love

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: NPR editor's accusation of liberal bias should not be dismissed