The City We Forgot To Name

Image by Jonathan Velasquez via UnsplashImage by Jonathan Velasquez via Unsplash

Asymmetrical news coverage at most of the mainstream media sites is something that I’ve almost just come to accept without any particular frustration. However, there are times when a particular topic comes up, and it’s so obvious that the coverage has been unfair and skewed, that it creates a sense that I have only been told what the media outlet wants me to hear. It feels a bit insulting that the leadership at these organizations have decided that I’m not intelligent enough to get all the facts and make judgments for myself.

Uri Berliner, a senior business editor at NPR, just came out about the institutional bias at the network. He relates the conversations he has with people when he tells them he works at NPR.

After the initial I love NPR,” there’s a pause and a person will acknowledge, I don’t listen as much as I used to.” Or, with some chagrin: What’s happening there? Why is NPR telling me what to think?”

In recent years I’ve struggled to answer that question. Concerned by the lack of viewpoint diversity, I looked at voter registration for our newsroom. In D.C., where NPR is headquartered and many of us live, I found 87 registered Democrats working in editorial positions and zero Republicans. None.

I stopped listening to NPR a few years ago. I used to love the network. Even though I knew it had some biases, it still did a reasonable amount of fair reporting. That all but ended in the years following Donald Trump’s election, as Berliner relates. For example, it was a given that, almost any time I turned on the radio, I was going to hear a story about abortion. I finally thought, well, they might as well come out and say they are now an abortion advocacy organization and not a journalistic one.

I wrote about the bias in October of 2022. Listeners of NPR simply weren’t hearing certain news stories because they didn’t advance the causes that the organization was promoting. It’s abundantly clear in Berliner’s account that the organization has certain goals it wants to advance and intellectual diversity, or even bare honesty, are not among them. It’s not that their objectives are malicious, by any means, but they aim to provide news that supports a guiding narrative and deliberately exclude that which may call that narrative into question.

I first read about this story in a piece written by Ariel Shapiro for The Verge. There were a couple of things that I found interesting about Shapiro’s take. Shapiro writes of Berliner that he did not give NPR a chance to respond (journalism 101!).” I mean, the guy has worked there for 25 years and the story is littered with anecdotes of how they responded (or didn’t) to his concerns when he brought them forward. He’s not some outsider who may be misunderstanding the perspective of the organization profiled in his writing. As is documented in the article, he gave the leadership at NPR many opportunities to address his misgivings. So, I’m not sure that’s necessarily a valid criticism.

Of the demographic findings about the makeup of NPR’s editorial staff, quoted above, Shapiro writes:

This is remarkable given that NPR has a very specific obligation to its audience (and potential audience). It is a public institution. However pitiful an amount, it does receive public funds. According to Gallup, Democrats make up 28 percent of the electorate, behind Republicans (30 percent) and Independents (41 percent). I am sure that some of you will be angry when I say this, but yes, in order to reflect America, you do need some staffers who understand how the other three-quarters of America thinks.

What’s interesting about that statement is that Shapiro knows many readers of The Verge don’t want to hear any opinions except the ones that reflect those of their own tribe. Some people will be reflexively angry about any notion of including views that aren’t their preferred orthodoxy.

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