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Editorial: Liberal bias at NPR, old-school journalism and the reluctance to admit a mistake

Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Uri Berliner, a journalist of a certain age, has been feeling some heartburn over what has been transpiring at his longtime employer, National Public Radio.

In a nuanced and thoughtful essay on the website The Free Press, founded by Bari Weiss and Nellie Bowles, Berliner detailed what he has seen as egregious liberal bias at his employer. Among Berliner’s most notable charges: the network’s refusal to admit that its oft-told story of the Trump presidential campaign colluding with Russia was a canard, even after Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion; NPR’s determination to keep ignoring the clearly relevant Hunter Biden laptop story, even in the face of evidence that it contained politically relevant details of Biden family business dealings; and its stubborn refusal to take the “lab leak” theory of COVID origin seriously, clinging to the idea it was a right-wing conspiracy theory, even as more and more evidence was pointing in that direction.

In essence, looking back at the last presidential campaign, Berliner argued that the station had unethically refused to run anything that it thought might help Trump. And, therefore, NPR had thus changed from a neutral news outfit, following the facts, to a cabal of advocates for one side of the political divide.

We suspect few of our readers would be surprised to hear evidence that NPR has a liberal bias, both nationally and within its local affiliates. And we’ll point out that in all three of the cases cited above, the issue perhaps wasn’t so much political bias so much as a reluctance to admit mistakes had been made in past coverage or follow up sufficiently when there’s new evidence. We journalists hate to fess up as a breed; only the best of us do so in a timely and complete way. In all three cases, those same charges also have been credibly leveled against The New York Times and others. Even many progressive journalists in many newsrooms quietly acknowledge those errors. The pendulum swung too far, and it’s swung back only a little.

But Berliner, whose point of view is shared among veterans of many newsrooms, was actually defending a particular brand of journalistic thinking: “It’s true NPR has always had a liberal bent, but during most of my tenure here, an open-minded, curious culture prevailed,” he wrote. “We were nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding. In recent years, however, that has changed.”

He’s right, of course. So what happened? Part of the answer is the chicken-and-egg segmentation of the audience: the reason all the late-night comedy hosts are progressives is that like-minded viewers are watching TV at that hour. The Times has mostly urban liberals as its subscribers, so it fiscally behooves it to super-serve them.

Part of the answer has to be the rise of critical race theory and the George Floyd-induced reckoning, wherein old-line centrism came to be seen by many on the left as unhelpful at best or a continuance of historical racism at worst. And a big part of the blame goes to Donald J. Trump, who convinced plenty of young journalists he was such a threat to democracy that refusing to write a story which might help him win the presidency was a patriotic act. Of course, that only backfired, as we all now can see. But plenty of smart, leftist journalists still openly decry “bothsidesism,” once a defining ethos of journalists in a free society.

And then, of course, there is the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose outlets became so conservative that the old centrists worried they were falling into the same trap that snared Democrats at the 1991 Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings: Hill faced Republican prosecutors, cautiously neutral Democrats and had no defense counsel. It was crushingly unfair. Lots of newspeople, especially women, don’t want to see that happen again on their watch. Not with Trump around.

So what to do? The idea that we’re going to see a sudden resurgence of open-minded thinking and ideological de-emphasis is probably pie in the sky, as helpful as that would be for those of us who dislike America’s political extremes. Take, for example, CNN reporter Oliver Darcy’s coverage of a piece he clearly hated: “Regardless of the questionable merits of Berliner’s sweeping conclusions,” Darcy wrote, ironically confirming the premise of the article he was critiquing, “his piece has been nothing short of a massive gift to the right, which has made vilifying the news media its top priority in recent years.”

 

If that’s CNN’s response to a thoughtful critique, that’s a problem. As a journalist, Berliner shouldn’t be worrying about what a political movement could, or even will, do with his piece: his job is to state the evidence and make his point. Of all organizations, CNN should see that. We certainly do.

We commend Berliner’s courage in taking a stand that probably alienated him from many of his colleagues. We think it has good lessons for all news organizations, and it’s equally applicable to those on the right. Journalism has become a lot like nuclear proliferation and deterrence; someone has to have the courage to disarm. For the sake of the country.

There’s a business case to be made here too. The best news outlets, columnists and editorializers have the capacity to surprise readers and viewers, and don’t hesitate to do so. Predictability is a turnoff for readers and listeners. If you know what someone is going to say about something in advance, you’re more inclined not to bother finding out.

Journalists are doing a lot of fretting these days about AI and a possible dystopian future in which that technology eliminates their jobs. One way to ward off that threat is to surprise people. It’s easer to replicate a publication and its writers if they’re beating the same drum all the time.

Still, we’re optimists when it comes to our profession. We see some wise newsroom heads, not all of them old, who realize that foregrounding ideology or political mission doesn’t help report the news or summon the courage to stand up to journalists who are activists in disguise. Plenty of courageous newsroom stands are taken, often with little notice, as facts lead in inconvenient directions, as they so often do.

Readers most often write letters to the editor when they are aggrieved by something. Here’s a suggestion: We think you can help journalism and the country when you write one to praise a courageous journalist who has admitted to a past mistake or wrong take, even if that confession undermines a favored cause.

We doubt AI will do that.

___


©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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