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NPR suspends editor Uri Berliner over criticism of network

The suspension without pay comes after the business desk editor published an essay in the Free Press that accused NPR of embracing a progressive and partisan agenda.

The suspension without pay comes after the business desk editor published an essay in the Free Press that accused NPR of embracing a progressive and partisan agenda.

NPR Business Desk Editor Uri Berliner.
NPR Business Desk Editor Uri Berliner. (Courtesy image)

Public radio program distributor NPR has suspended its business desk editor Uri Berliner over an editorial he wrote that was critical of the broadcaster and its former executives.

The suspension of Uri Berliner occurred last Friday, but was only made public on Tuesday after NPR revealed it in a news story on its website. The story was apparently with Berliner’s blessing, as he reportedly provided documents outlining the discipline to its media correspondent, David Folkenflik.

The unpaid suspension occurred several days after Berliner penned an essay for the Free Press, a Substack-distributed newsletter founded by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss. The newsletter offers “investigative stories and provocative commentary about the world as it actually is,” and is often a haven for think-pieces from those who feel disenfranchised by the perceived progressive tilt of the American mainstream media.

In his column, Berliner complained that NPR had moved away from its middle-of-the-road editorial approach, something he affirmed was in place when he started at the network more than two decades ago.

Then, Berliner said NPR found favor with a diverse audience that included progressives, moderates and conservatives alike. “No image generated more pride within NPR than the farmer listening to Morning Edition from his or her tractor at sunrise,” Berliner wrote.

But by 2023, NPR became more polarized, with just 11 percent of its listeners describing themselves as conservatives and 21 percent as moderate, according to data cited by Berliner.

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

In the years since he joined, though, the national and international media scene has undergone seismic changes. When he started as an NPR editor in 1999, there was no social media to further divide and polarize the American news consumer. Rush Limbaugh was one of the few voices undermining the public’s trust in the mainstream media, and his platform was largely relegated to AM radio, which was losing listeners at a steady clip. The Fox News Channel was just three years into broadcasting, and few conservative voices were found on the then-fledgling, AOL dial up-driven Internet.

Berliner didn’t address any of this in his piece. Instead, he said things began to change at NPR after 2016, when former U.S. President Donald Trump won the election.

“As in many newsrooms, his election in 2016 was greeted at NPR with a mixture of disbelief, anger, and despair,” Berliner wrote, adding that he voted against Trump in two elections but “felt we were obligated to cover him fairly.”

Berliner doesn’t define the term “fairly,” but the rest of his piece makes it seem as if NPR, in his view, did not.

“At NPR, we hitched our wagon to Trump’s most visible antagonist, Representative Adam Schiff,” Berliner complained. “Schiff, who was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, became NPR’s guiding hand, its ever-present muse. By my count, NPR hosts interviewed Schiff 25 times about Trump and Russia. During many of those conversations, Schiff alluded to purported evidence of collusion. The Schiff talking points became the drumbeat of NPR news reports.”

NPR was not alone in parroting claims of collusion between Trump, his confidants and officials in Russia. Indeed, the story was fodder for newspapers, cable news and talk radio throughout the Trump administration. No evidence of collusion was ultimately found by the U.S. Department of Justice’s special counsel Robert Mueller, which Berliner posited was good enough to mean that it must not have occurred at all.

“It is one thing to swing and miss on a major story…what’s worse is to pretend it never happened, to move on with no mea culpas, no self-reflection,” Berliner complained in the essay.

It was just one of several “miscues” that Berliner highlighted in his essay, which he said could be traced back to a number of things.

First was NPR’s hiring of John Lansing from the federal agency that oversees Voice of America, the U.S. Government-funded international broadcaster. Lansing was originally hired for his fundraising prowess, Berliner said, but he “became a more-visible and forceful figure” within NPR’s newsroom following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, which triggered anti-police brutality protests across the country that summer.

According to Berliner, Lansing communicated that NPR was part of the problem involving systemic racism in America, and declared that “diversity on our staff and in our audience was the overriding mission” that would correct that perceived error. This eventually extended to the precise language NPR could use in its newscasts and programs, Berliner said, which was backed by the union representing NPR’s workers.

“What’s notable is the extent to which people at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview,” Berliner wrote. “And this, I believe, is the most damaging development at NPR: the absence of viewpoint diversity.”

Berliner ended his essay by saying he was “rooting for” NPR’s newest chief executive, Katherine Maher, who was appointed by the public radio network’s board of directors in January.

Something changed between the day his essay was published and the present, with Berliner noting that several of Maher’s public social media posts were evidence that she was unable to be an objective leader at NPR.

Specifically, Berliner took issue with posts Maher published in 2020 that called former President Trump a “deranged racist sociopath,” and another in which she stated that looting during the George Floyd demonstrations were “counterproductive,” but not as problematic as “prioritizing the private property of a system of oppression founded on treating people’s ancestors as private property.”

“We’re looking for a leader right now who’s going to be unifying and bring more people into the tent and have a broader perspective on, sort of, what America is all about — and this seems to be the opposite of that,” Berliner told NPR this week.

Berliner did not seek permission from NPR before publishing his essay in the Free Press, which runs afoul of NPR’s editorial policy for reporters and editors. Typically, NPR journalists are required to get the organization’s approval before they agree to speak to another media outlet.

The five-day suspension Berliner earned was for breaking this rule, though he was not disciplined for speaking with the New York Times a few days after his column ran on Substack. He also affirmed he did not get the organization’s prior blessing before talking with Folkenflik for his NPR story on the matter.

“Talking to an NPR journalist and being fired for that would be extraordinary, I think,” Berliner proclaimed.

While some NPR staffers share Berliner’s concern, they say there were better, more-productive ways to bring those concerns to the organization’s attention without public embarrassing a network that has been a conservative target over the past few years.

“Newsrooms run on trust,” Danielle Kurtzleben, a political correspondent at NPR, wrote in a social media post that was obviously directed at Berliner’s column. “If you violate everyone’s trust by going to another outlet and s—–g on your colleages…I don’t know how you do your job now.”

Berliner will have at least a week to figure out how to do just that.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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