NPR suspends veteran editor as it grapples with his public criticism


NPR has formally punished Uri Berliner, the senior editor who publicly argued a week ago that the network had "lost America's trust" by approaching news stories with a rigidly progressive mindset.

Berliner's five-day suspension without pay, which began last Friday, has not been previously reported.

Yet the public radio network is grappling in other ways with the fallout from Berliner's essay for the online news site The Free Press. It angered many of his colleagues, led NPR leaders to announce monthly internal reviews of the network's coverage, and gave fresh ammunition to conservative and partisan Republican critics of NPR, including former President Donald Trump.

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo is among those now targeting NPR's new chief executive, Katherine Maher, for messages she posted to social media years before joining the network. Among others, those posts include a 2020 tweet that called Trump racist and another that appeared to minimize rioting during social justice protests that year. Maher took the job at NPR last month – her first at a news organization.

In a statement Monday about the messages she had posted, Maher praised the integrity of NPR's journalists and underscored the independence of their reporting.

"In America, everyone is entitled to free speech as a private citizen," she said. "What matters is NPR's work and my commitment as its CEO: public service, editorial independence, and the mission to serve all of the American public. NPR is independent, beholden to no party, and without commercial interests."

The network noted that "the CEO is not involved in editorial decisions."

In an interview with me later on Monday, Berliner said the social media posts demonstrated Maher was all but incapable of being the person best poised to direct the organization.

"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," Berliner said. "And this seems to be the opposite of that."

Conservative critics of NPR are now targeting its new chief executive, Katherine Maher, for messages she posted to social media years before joining the public radio network last month.

Stephen Voss/Stephen Voss

He said that he tried repeatedly to make his concerns over NPR's coverage known to news leaders and to Maher's predecessor as chief executive before publishing his essay.

Berliner has singled out coverage of several issues dominating the 2020s for criticism, including trans rights, the Israel-Hamas war, and COVID. Berliner says he sees the same problems at other news organizations, but argues NPR, as a mission-driven institution, has a greater obligation to fairness.

"I love NPR and feel it's a national trust," Berliner says. "We have great journalists here. If they shed their opinions and did the great journalism they're capable of, this would be a much more interesting and fulfilling organization for our listeners."

A "final warning"

The circumstances surrounding the interview were singular.

Berliner provided me with a copy of the formal rebuke to review. NPR did not confirm or comment upon his suspension for this article.

In presenting Berliner's suspension Thursday afternoon, the organization told the editor he had failed to secure its approval for outside work for other news outlets, as is required of NPR journalists. It called the letter a "final warning," saying Berliner would be fired if he violated NPR's policy again. Berliner is a dues-paying member of NPR's newsroom union but says he is not appealing the punishment.

The Free Press is a site that has become a haven for journalists who believe that mainstream media outlets have become too liberal. In addition to his essay, Berliner appeared in an episode of its podcast Honestly with Bari Weiss.

In the rebuke, NPR did not cite Berliner's appearance on Chris Cuomo's NewsNation program last Tuesday night, for which NPR gave him the green light. (NPR's chief communications officer told Berliner to focus on his own experience and not share proprietary information.) The NPR letter also did not cite his remarks to the New York Times, which ran its article mid-afternoon Thursday, shortly before the reprimand was sent. Berliner says he did not seek approval before talking with the Times.

Berliner says he did not get permission from NPR to speak with me for this story but that he was not worried about the consequences: "Talking to an NPR journalist and being fired for that would be extraordinary, I think."

Berliner is a member of NPR's business desk, as am I, and he has helped to edit many of my stories. He had no involvement in the preparation of this article and did not see it before it was posted publicly.

In rebuking Berliner, NPR said he had also publicly released proprietary information about audience demographics, which it considers confidential. He said those figures "were essentially marketing material. If they had been really good, they probably would have distributed them and sent them out to the world."

Feelings of anger and betrayal inside the newsroom

His essay and subsequent public remarks stirred deep anger and dismay within NPR. Colleagues contend Berliner cherry-picked examples to fit his arguments and challenge the accuracy of his accounts. They also note he did not seek comment from the journalists involved in the work he cited.

Morning Edition host Michel Martin told me some colleagues at the network share Berliner's concerns that coverage is frequently presented through an ideological or idealistic prism that can alienate listeners.

"The way to address that is through training and mentorship," says Martin, herself a veteran of nearly two decades at the network who has also reported for The Wall Street Journal and ABC News. "It's not by blowing the place up, by trashing your colleagues, in full view of people who don't really care about it anyway."

Several NPR journalists told me they are no longer willing to work with Berliner as they no longer have confidence that he will keep private their internal musings about stories as they work through coverage.

"Newsrooms run on trust," NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben tweeted last week, without mentioning Berliner by name. "If you violate everyone's trust by going to another outlet and sh---ing on your colleagues (while doing a bad job journalistically, for that matter), I don't know how you do your job now."

Berliner rejected that critique, saying nothing in his essay or subsequent remarks betrayed private observations or arguments about coverage.

Other newsrooms are also grappling with questions over news judgment and confidentiality. On Monday, New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Kahn announced to his staff that the newspaper's inquiry into who leaked internal dissent over a planned episode of its podcast The Daily to another news outlet proved inconclusive. The episode was to focus on a December report on the use of sexual assault as part of the Hamas attack on Israel in October. Audio staffers aired doubts over how well the reporting stood up to scrutiny.

"We work together with trust and collegiality every day on everything we produce, and I have every expectation that this incident will prove to be a singular exception to an important rule," Kahn wrote to Times staffers.

At NPR, some of Berliner's colleagues have weighed in online against his claim that the network has focused on diversifying its workforce without a concomitant commitment to diversity of viewpoint. Recently retired chief executive John Lansing has referred to this pursuit of diversity within NPR's workforce as its "North Star," a moral imperative and chief business strategy.

In his essay, Berliner tagged the strategy as a failure, citing the drop in NPR's broadcast audiences and its struggle to attract more Black and Latino listeners in particular.

"During most of my tenure here, an open-minded, curious culture prevailed. We were nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding," Berliner writes. "In recent years, however, that has changed."

Berliner writes, "For NPR, which purports to consider all things, it's devastating both for its journalism and its business model."

NPR Investigative reporter Chiara Eisner wrote in a comment for this story: "Minorities do not all think the same and do not report the same. Good reporters and editors should know that by now. It's embarrassing to me as a reporter at NPR that a senior editor here missed that point in 2024."

Some colleagues drafted a letter to Maher and NPR's chief news executive, Edith Chapin, seeking greater clarity on NPR's standards for its coverage and the behavior of its journalists - clearly pointed at Berliner.

A plan for "healthy discussion"

On Friday, CEO Maher stood up for the network's mission and the journalism, taking issue with Berliner's critique, though never mentioning him by name. Among her chief issues: she said Berliner's essay offered "a criticism of our people based on who we are."

Berliner took great exception to that, saying she had denigrated him. He said that he supported diversifying NPR's workforce to look more like the U.S. population at large. She did not address that in a subsequent private exchange, he shared with me for this story. (An NPR spokesperson declined further comment.)

Late Monday afternoon, Chapin announced to the newsroom that Executive Editor Eva Rodriguez would lead monthly meetings to review coverage.

"Among the questions we'll ask of ourselves each month: Did we capture the diversity of this country - racial, ethnic, religious, economic, political geographic, etc – in all of its complexity and in a way that helped listeners and readers recognize themselves and their communities?" Chapin wrote in the memo. "Did we offer coverage that helped them understand – even if just a bit better — those neighbors with whom they share little in common?"

Berliner said he welcomed the announcement but would withhold judgment until those meetings played out.

In a text for this story, Chapin said such sessions had been discussed since Lansing unified the news and programming divisions under her acting leadership last year.

"Now seemed [the] time to deliver if we were going to do it," Chapin said. "Healthy discussion is something we need more of."

Katherine Maher, the chief executive of NPR, is facing online criticism for years-old social media posts criticizing former President Donald J. Trump and embracing liberal causes.

The posts, published on the social media platform Twitter, which is now called X, were written before she was named chief executive of NPR in January. They resurfaced this week after an essay by an NPR staff member who argued that the broadcaster’s leaders had allowed liberal bias to taint its coverage.

“Also, Donald Trump is a racist,” read one of Ms. Maher’s posts in 2018, which has since been deleted. Another post, from November 2020, shows Ms. Maher wearing a hat with the logo for the Biden presidential campaign.

“Had a dream where Kamala and I were on a road trip in an unspecified location, sampling and comparing nuts and baklava from roadside stands,” Ms. Maher wrote, an apparent reference to Vice President Kamala Harris. “Woke up very hungry.”

Ms. Maher, who had not worked in the news industry before joining NPR, was the chief executive of the Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the popular online resource Wikipedia when she wrote many of the posts that were now being criticized.

An NPR spokeswoman, Isabel Lara, said in a statement that Ms. Maher “was not working in journalism at the time and was exercising her First Amendment right to express herself like any other American citizen.”

NPR also said that Ms. Maher had upheld the network’s code of ethics since she was appointed.

“Since stepping into the role she has upheld and is fully committed to NPR’s code of ethics and the independence of NPR’s newsroom,” the statement said. “The C.E.O. is not involved in editorial decisions.”

Ms. Maher said in a statement that in America, “everyone is entitled to free speech as a private citizen.” She heralded the network’s commitment to independent reporting and called on Americans to “listen, watch, and read our work.”

“What matters is NPR’s work and my commitment as its C.E.O.: public service, editorial independence, and the mission to serve all of the American public,” Ms. Maher said. “NPR is independent, beholden to no party, and without commercial interests.”

Much of the discussion about the posts has emanated from conservative critics after the publication of an opinion column in The Free Press, a popular Substack publication. In the column, Uri Berliner, a senior business editor at NPR, said that “people at every level of NPR have comfortably coalesced around the progressive worldview.”

NPR business editor Uri Berliner.Credit...JP Yim/Wireimage, via Getty

Mr. Berliner’s essay stunned his co-workers, who were unaccustomed to seeing NPR’s journalism excoriated by a long-serving editor. The essay was addressed internally at a lunch with Ms. Maher and the hosts of NPR’s popular programs, including “All Things Considered,” and more than a half-hour of a “Morning Edition” meeting was occupied by a discussion of Mr. Berliner’s criticisms.

Several NPR employees have taken to Twitter to criticize Mr. Berliner’s essay. Eric Deggans, the public network’s TV critic, faulted Mr. Berliner for not seeking comment from NPR before publishing his essay. Scott Detrow, the weekend host of “All Things Considered,” called attention to Mr. Berliner’s numerous media appearances to discuss his essay.

“Going public to torch your workplace, then doing media hit after media hit to continue torching it, is not a thing you do when you have good-faith intentions,” Mr. Detrow wrote.

Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, called attention to many of Ms. Maher’s posts on X and shared a response from Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, who had responded to one of Ms. Maher’s posts that Mr. Rufo highlighted, saying, “This person is a crazy racist!”

“If NPR wants to truly be National Public Radio, it can’t pander to the furthest-left elements in the United States,” Mr. Rufo said in an interview. “To do so, NPR should part ways with Katherine Maher.”

Ms. Maher, who started late last month, pushed back against the accusations of bias at NPR in a memo to employees last week.

“Asking a question about whether we’re living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions,” Ms. Maher said in the note. “Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

Shortly after joining NPR, Ms. Maher held a town hall-style meeting with employees to introduce herself and field questions. At one point, Ms. Maher was asked about NBC’s recent decision to give a platform to political figures like Ronna McDaniel, a former chair of the Republican National Committee. NBC cut ties to Ms. McDaniel after her hiring as an on-air commentator caused an internal uproar, with many journalists at the network upset about her handling of Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

“I think that the most effective way that I have seen this play out is if you’re bringing somebody into a story that is pushing a deliberate distortion, be extraordinarily well-prepared to push back and very prepared with the information necessary, the irreducible facts,” Ms. Maher said.

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