Apr 30, 2024

The NPR controversy.

NPR headquarters. Image: Wikocommons
NPR headquarters. Image: Wikocommons

Plus, a question about the Electoral College.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're breaking down the controversy over media bias at NPR. Also, a reader question about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

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NYC event + TED talk.

In case you missed it: On Sunday, managing editor Ari and I sat down to discuss the behind-the-scenes of the TED talk. Then, we reflected on our live event in New York City before sharing a full recording of the entire event. You can listen to the whole thing in our latest Sunday podcast.

You can listen on Apple Podcasts here.

You can listen on Spotify here.

You can find links to the podcast on all platforms here.

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Hamas to accept Israel’s latest ceasefire proposal, which calls for the release of hostages. (The proposal) Separately, Israel expressed concern that the International Criminal Court could issue arrest warrants for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior Israeli officials. (The latest)
  2. Hunter Biden is threatening to sue Fox News for defamation, exploitation, and unlawful publication of hacked photographs for stories related to his laptop. (The threat)
  3. The largest nuclear power plant in the U.S. put two new reactors into commercial operation in Georgia yesterday after a much-delayed 15-year expansion. (The operation)
  4. The Supreme Court declined to hear Elon Musk's appeal over a settlement that required the Securities and Exchange Commission to vet his social media posts. (The case)
  5. Four officers were killed and four others were wounded while serving an arrest warrant in North Carolina. (The shooting)
  6. BREAKING: Former President Donald Trump was fined $9,000 and held in contempt of court for violating a gag order in his “hush money” trial. (The ruling)

Today's topic.

The NPR controversy. On April 9, National Public Radio's longtime business editor Uri Berliner published an essay in The Free Press titled "I've Been at NPR for Over 25 Years. Here's How We Lost America's Trust." Berliner detailed his experience at the network, castigating it for a leftward lurch that has left many of its longtime listeners disenchanted and moving on to other news sources.

"It’s true NPR has always had a liberal bent, but during most of my tenure here, an open-minded, curious culture prevailed. We were nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding," Berliner wrote. "In recent years, however, that has changed. Today, those who listen to NPR or read its coverage online find something different: the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the U.S. population."

Berliner's essay prompted a public spat with several of NPR's other top editors, who criticized his piece and its characterization of NPR. Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep said that Berliner refused to “engage anyone who had a different point of view.”

“This article needed a better editor,” Inskeep wrote. “I don’t know who, if anyone, edited Uri’s story, but they let him publish an article that discredited itself.”

Shortly after the essay was released, NPR CEO Katherine Maher sent a memo to NPR staff vouching for the newsroom’s integrity. Berliner was then suspended for five days without pay for breaking the organization's rules on working for outside organizations without first securing permission. After an email exchange with Maher, Berliner announced his resignation. 

“I cannot work in a newsroom where I am disparaged by a new C.E.O. whose divisive views confirm the very problems at NPR I cite in my Free Press essay,” he wrote.

Berliner's essay created a wave of criticism about NPR from many conservative pundits. It also brought increased scrutiny onto the newsroom, particularly Maher’s past social media posts that signaled far-left views on major political issues. The conservative activist Christopher Rufo uncovered tweets from 2020 in which Maher called Trump a “deranged racist sociopath,” downplayed rioting during the George Floyd protests, described ideological diversity as “often a dog whistle for anti-feminist, anti-POC stories” and criticized Hillary Clinton for using the expression “boys and girls,” which she said amounted to “nonbinary erasure.” 

While some current editors criticized Berliner, he also received support from some former NPR employees. Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, former ombudsman for NPR, described Berliner as “not wrong,” while former managing editor Chuck Holmes called the essay “brave” in a post on Facebook.

On Monday, several Republican members of Congress sent a letter to Maher blasting the organization and expressing “deep concerns regarding the editorial direction under NPR's national leadership.” In the past two weeks, two House GOP members have also introduced bills to cut NPR’s federal funding. NPR was established in 1967 by Congress (as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) to create a nonprofit radio entity, but as of 2013 roughly 1% of the organization's annual operating budget came from federal agencies or grants (though the exact amount is disputed). Still, NPR benefits from contracts with local radio stations that U.S. government incentives help support. 

Today, we're going to break down some arguments about the controversy from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right says Berliner’s essay validated what conservatives have said about mainstream media outlets for years. 
  • Some say the time has come for NPR to lose its federal funding. 
  • Others suggest media bias goes deeper than what Berliner shared.

The Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote about “liberal bias at NPR, old-school journalism and the reluctance to admit a mistake.”

“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 [cited in Berliner’s essay], 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 board said. “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.”

“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,” the board wrote. “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.”

In The Hill, Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) argued “Congress must finally eliminate the flow of taxpayer dollars to biased NPR.”

“The government should not be in the business of funding the news. More accurately, the government should not be in the business of forcing taxpayers to fund the news. Actually, the government should not be borrowing the money to fund the news, and then sticking hardworking taxpayers with the bill. Doing so is even more egregious when the news organization has a clear bias that is offensive to half of the country,” Good said. “Now 55 years since its founding, NPR has long strayed far from its journalistic roots, and become a primary outlet for advancing the biased, partisan, hard-left view of political and moral issues.”

“So, why do we force Americans to help pay Maher’s salary and contribute nearly $100 million annually to NPR? Imagine the outrage from Democrats and their allies in traditional media organizations if taxpayers were forced to fund a conservative news outlet,” Good wrote. “Trust in journalism is at a historic low, rivaling that of Congress, because too often Americans are not presented both sides of the story, and are instead fed a one-sided narrative with an agenda. That shouldn’t be done on the taxpayer dime.”

In National Review, Howard Husock said “the real bias at NPR” is story selection. 

“As concerning as the treatment of specific topics may be, however, criticism of NPR should not be understood to be a problem of political bias. As anyone who has been involved in daily journalism [knows]... the decisions involve more than specific personalities,” Husock wrote. “On any given day, the stories of NPR and those, for instance, of Fox News can seem to be reports from different Americas. For NPR, it may be the Arizona court decision on abortion ‘rights.’ Fox would be more likely to lead with its correspondent on the southern border.”

“As Berliner points out, some takes on events — such as the possible ‘lab leak’ origin of Covid — can become ‘radioactive.’ All such decisions as to what to cover and what about it to emphasize are effectively efforts to set the national cultural and political agenda. This is the real media bias,” Husock added. “NPR must do much more than, per Berliner, ‘present the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the US population’ in what is effectively an effort to recruit others into that segment.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left pushes back on Berliner’s essay, arguing he missed the opportunity to offer a reasoned critique of NPR’s shortcomings. 
  • Some say Berliner raised valid points that should prompt introspection in newsrooms.
  • Others say NPR has real problems, but not the ones Berliner called out.

In The Guardian, Margaret Sullivan said “NPR needs a serious critique not a politically charged parting shot.”

“Berliner’s critique made some points worth pondering as he professed how much he loved the place he had worked for decades but with which he had become disillusioned… He also made some shaky arguments that undercut his musings and seemed intended to signal his readiness to having his words weaponized by the right wing of American politics and media,” Sullivan wrote. “The way he went about his complaint last week made it clear he was no longer interested in constructive criticism. He wanted a viral parting shot.”

“Newsroom leader Edith Chapin launched an effort to critique NPR’s journalism on a regular basis, including examining viewpoint diversity; that’s been in the works, but the timing strongly suggests it came to fruition because of this whole very public mess. Something positive could result, after all, if those sessions are honest, open and wide-ranging,” Sullivan said. “But one thing is certain. You’ll be seeing Uri Berliner on a rightwing talkshow or a conservative opinion page near you.”

In The Cincinnati Enquirer, Beryl Love wrote “Uri Berliner paid a big price for speaking out; we owe him a listen.”

“Berliner’s essay certainly can be picked apart, but it shouldn’t be dismissed. Its 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,” Love said. “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.”

“National news organizations often fail the sniff test when accused of promoting an agenda,” Love added. “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.”

In Slate, Alicia Montgomery discussed “the real story behind NPR’s current problems.”

“NPR, the great bastion of old-school audio journalism, is a mess. But as someone who loves NPR, built my career there, and once aspired to stay forever, I say with sadness that it has been for a long time,” Montgomery wrote. “NPR has been both a beacon of thoughtful, engaging, and fair journalism for decades, and a rickety organizational shit show for almost as long. If former CEO John Lansing—the big bad of Uri’s piece—failed to fix it, or somehow made it worse, that’s a failure he shared with almost every NPR leader before him.”

“Uri’s account of the deliberate effort to undermine Trump up to and after his election is also bewilderingly incomplete, inaccurate, and skewed. For most of 2016, many NPR journalists warned newsroom leadership that we weren’t taking Trump and the possibility of his winning seriously enough,” Montgomery said. “And that’s what the core editorial problem at NPR is and, frankly, has long been: an abundance of caution that often crossed the border to cowardice. NPR culture encouraged an editorial fixation on finding the exact middle point of the elite political and social thought, planting a flag there, and calling it objectivity.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Most importantly, Berliner is right — NPR has a liberal bias that’s plain as day.
  • I support Berliner writing the essay, I understand why NPR suspended him, and I get why he resigned.
  • Now it’s on NPR to take the opportunity for introspection.

A few weeks ago, when writing about Chuck Schumer's rebuke of Benjamin Netanyahu, I said, "The most important thing about Schumer's speech is that he is right." With only one change, I could have written the same thing about today’s story: The most important thing about Uri Berliner's essay is that he's right.

NPR has always had a liberal bent, of course. But it had a way of approaching major issues that humanized its subjects and offered a wide range of perspectives on the most controversial topics. As a result, it used to enjoy a diverse audience, one whose makeup wasn’t too far off from Tangle's current audience. In 2011, NPR's audience was 26% conservative, 23% independent or middle of the road, and 37% liberal; Tangle’s current audience is about 40% liberal, 30% conservative, and 30% independent or centrist. That kind of audience is what you get when you work to speak to more than one political tribe.

Today, Berliner notes, NPR's audience is totally different: "Only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal."

Berliner tells a story in his essay that is by now familiar to most people: Donald Trump got elected, and the reporters at NPR completely lost their minds — covering every rumor about his criminality as if it was fact while ignoring their mistakes about major stories without any serious acknowledgment. The only thing surprising about his piece is that it took this long for a current or former NPR reporter to write it. Berliner described a similar newsroom atmosphere as Adam Rubenstein did in his story about The New York Times.

I’ve tried to resist saying this but I probably should: I created Tangle precisely because so many newsrooms were going the way NPR, The New York Times, and others were trending — and because the alternatives to them were institutions like Fox News that were just as ideologically captured by the other side.

As with any newsroom, I don't want to simply trash NPR. I think it still does great work and still produces captivating radio shows. This American Life, for instance, is one of my favorite podcasts, even if the subject matter and language choices have listed noticeably to the left. I sometimes use NPR’s digital news as references in Tangle, and I find they often report on and break stories evenhandedly. When making Tangle's editorial standards, we even stole some of NPR's approach to talking about abortion, an area where I think the newsroom is still at its best.

Yet Berliner's case is self-evident. The network boastfully and unapologetically ignored major news stories like Hunter Biden's laptop by simply dismissing their significance (or openly suggesting they weren't going to cover them for fear of helping Trump). It also found itself on the wrong side of coverage of other topics, like the Trump-Russia story, without ever acknowledging it or course correcting.

The tweets from NPR's new CEO Katherine Maher were just the cherry on top — a perfect example of the kind of ideology many of the people who rise at a place like NPR now hold. It’s not hard to imagine how Maher’s worldview could permeate NPR, influencing everything from its strategic direction to hiring decisions. Even though she isn’t in an editorial role, her public comments are undoubtedly alienating would-be conservative readers and listeners.

When NPR responded to Berliner's essay by suspending him, my instinct was to be critical of the decision. Why bring more attention to an already bad situation, and why punish someone for speaking honestly about NPR's failures?

I actually had my mind changed by a backstage conversation with Michael Moynihan, one of the panelists at the Tangle Live event, who said of Berliner's actions, "You just don't do that." If you decide to go public trashing your employer, you can expect to get suspended or fired, even if what you are saying is true. That is simple and also fair. Funnily enough, Moynihan also told me The Free Press will soon be running a piece he wrote about his time at Vice, which followed a similar trajectory as Berliner's at NPR.

In the end, Berliner did the right thing. He wrote a powerful, convincing piece that communicated something most of us already knew but in openly critical terms, and he wrote it because he was someone who could write with authority. NPR responded fairly and predictably by punishing him for working with another publication without permission, and Berliner responded rationally by resigning — sensing that he could no longer have a normal work life at the news outlet he just blasted.

The only real shame that could come from this saga would be if NPR, rather than enjoy some introspection, doubles down. Maher has shown no sign she is taking Berliner's argument seriously, but if the reception of his piece is any indication of how the network is viewed today, she'd be wise to.

Take the survey: What do you think of NPR’s bias? Let us know!

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Your questions, answered.

Q: There are now 16 Democratic states that have joined together in the “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” (NPVIC). These states now have 207 of the needed 270 electoral votes to elect a president… They obviously would not need to do this if their Democratic candidate had enough electoral votes from the primaries to secure the election. Unfortunately, this means that there is no chance ever for a Republican candidate for President.

What does the push by Democratic states that are joining the NPVIC mean for our country, our constitution, and our elections? Will our country just become one where only the big cities/states matter and the rest of the country has no say? Why would candidates go anywhere else but big cities such as NY and LA to get their votes?

— Thom from Nebraska

Tangle: We explored the merits of the Electoral College in an in-depth piece in 2020, and as with most things, there isn’t a simple answer. “My take” was essentially that most arguments against the popular vote didn’t hold up, but the threat of nationalizing our elections still concerned me.

The allure of the popular vote election is straightforward — one person, one vote. And you can view this interstate compact as either a backhanded deal or as an ingenious way to right a systemic injustice, depending on your perspective. For example, my home state of Pennsylvania has 19 electors in 2024, meaning one vote for every 682,000 Pennsylvanians. Our managing editor, Ari, lives in Vermont, a small state with three electoral votes — one for every 216,000 Vermonters. In other words, Ari’s vote in the Electoral College is three times as valuable as mine. That doesn’t seem fair. 

And most big states aren’t battlegrounds like Pennsylvania. Democrat voters in states like Florida or Texas don’t have the incentives to show up in general elections, while Republican voters in states like Illinois, New York, California, Washington, and Colorado have long been disenfranchised. I could turn your question around and ask why any nominee would ever campaign in California’s Central Valley now, or even enormous cities like Chicago or Austin.

Furthermore, most small states aren’t like Vermont, either. Rural states like Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska have been voting more and more reliably Republican. Meanwhile, city dwellers are voting more and more reliably Democratic. So of course the party whose constituents form majorities in the most populous counties would want to change the system that waters down their voting power. 

Fundamentally, it seems clear that our current system does not fairly represent everyone. But there are still benefits of the Electoral College. It preserves the influence of smaller, rural states; it prevents “micro-candidates” from diluting the vote; and it acts as a check on executive power and totally nationalized elections. And there are ways to improve the system without completely abandoning it: Every state could adopt a system like Maine’s or Nebraska’s, where individual districts send their own electors. I’d certainly support that.

So, would a president elected by popular vote spell doom for our republic? Not in my opinion. I think it would change the way parties campaign, yes, but I do not think it would guarantee Democrats would win more presidential elections. Republicans are perfectly capable of winning the popular vote (as they have many times before), and I’m sure they could if they focused on chipping away at more populated areas, but right now they have no incentive to.

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Under the radar.

Kristi Noem may have just sunk her campaign to become Trump's vice president in bizarre fashion: By confessing to killing a dog in her new memoir. The South Dakota governor, who has been a top candidate for Trump's VP pick, wrote in a soon-to-be-released memoir that she killed a rambunctious puppy she was struggling to train for pheasant hunting. Noem tried to frame the story as an example of her willingness to do anything difficult or messy if it had to get done, but instead inspired backlash from conservative and liberal voters alike. She took to social media to say the dog had been aggressive and even bit her, but the fervor was so intense that some are wondering if the story has ruined her chances at being picked as Trump's running mate. The Associated Press has the story


  • 68%. The percentage of Americans who said they had a great or fair amount of trust in mass media (newspapers, TV, and radio) to report the news fully, accurately and fairly in 1972, according to Gallup.
  • 32%. The percentage of Americans who said they had a great or fair amount of trust in mass media in 2023.
  • 58%. The percentage of Democrats who said they had a great or fair amount of trust in mass media in 2023.
  • 11%. The percentage of Republicans who said they had a great or fair amount of trust in mass media in 2023.
  • +53. The net percentage of U.S. adults who said they viewed The Weather Channel as trustworthy (versus untrustworthy) in 2023, the highest trust rating of any major media organization, according to YouGov. 
  • +16. NPR’s net trust score in 2023. 
  • 8.3 million. The average weekly listenership of the top 20 NPR-affiliated public radio stations in 2022, a 10% year-over-year decrease, according to Pew Research.
  • -2.00. NPR’s score on AllSides’s Media Bias Rating, indicating a “lean left” bias. 

The extras.

Yesterday’s survey: 1,107 readers answered our survey on presidential immunity with 70% strongly opposed. “Impeachment is not the safeguard against criminal activity that some claim. The recent examples of Donald Trump and Ken Paxton clearly show that impeachments are not decided by fair and impartial jurors,” one respondent said.

You can compare these results to December, when we asked the same question but with slightly different response options.

Looking for our survey link? We’ve moved it to follow “My take,” where it will live from now on.

Have a nice day.

It’s been 30 years since the Rwandan genocide, which killed a million Tutsi and non-extremist Hutu, but the country seems to be doing a remarkable job of healing. Every year in early April, Rwanda undertakes a 100-day reflection period to bridge historical divisions between the country’s main ethnic groups: Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa. This is done under the banner of Ndi Umunyarwanda — loosely translated as “I am Rwandan” — and it appears to be working. During conversations with 50 young Rwandans, field worker Jonathan Beloff found that the next generation has little desire to bring up what they classified as their parents’ divisions and instead see each other as fellow Rwandans. Good Good Good has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.