By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

An NPR editor decries what he sees as the network’s lurch to the progressive left

Photo (cc) 2010 by Todd Huffman

Three people — a progressive, a liberal and a moderate — have already sent me this commentary at The Free Press by NPR senior business editor Uri Berliner arguing that the network has lost trust and audience in recent years because it has lurched toward the progressive left. I’m putting it out there so that you’ll be aware of it and can have a chance to read it. Anything but the most cursory commentary will have to wait — I want to see how it settles in.

I will say that Berliner mischaracterizes the Mueller report and the Hunter Biden laptop story, which isn’t a good sign. He strikes me as squeamish about race and transgender issues as well. But there’s one point he makes that deserves some attention:

Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large. Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal.

By 2023, the picture was completely 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. We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals.

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

This is a consequence of the great ideological sorting-out we’ve seen, especially during the Trump years. These days, the audiences for NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other mainstream news organizations are overwhelmingly liberal and progressive. It’s not their fault; these are institutions that, however imperfectly, have tried to seek truth and report it, as the Society of Professional Journalists would have it, and have been attacked by the right as a result.

But their left-leaning audience in too many cases demands to be coddled. The Times drives me as crazy as it does anyone else, but it is constantly attacked on social media (especially on Threads) for not getting every pro-Biden, anti-Trump nuance exactly right. With advertising dead, editors at outlets like the Times and the Post have to balance the demands of their subscription-paying readers with their desire to cover the news fairly. A parallel situation exists at NPR, which is likely to become more dependent on membership fees from listeners as foundations cut their funding.

Anyway, those are a few preliminary thoughts. It will be interesting to see how Berliner’s essay resonates in the days ahead. And please post your own thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Ben

    I’m not an expert on the laptop story but how does he mischaracterize? He is absolutely correct on the lab leak mess within journalism.

    • Dan Kennedy

      He mischaracterizes the context around the laptop story, making it sound like an NPR thing. Fox News refused to report it, for God’s sake, and the New York Post reporters who got dragged into it refused to put their bylines on it. And he’s wrong that the laptop has been authenticated. There may still be a lot of misinformation in the image of the hard drive (not the laptop itself) that The Washington Post looked at. I agree that he’s largely correct (though not “absolutely” correct) about the lab leak.

      • Mike Chapman

        Garrison Keillor wrote “Wobegon Boy” long before he himself was “canceled”, and the fictional NPR station his protagonist worked for in the book eliminates classical music in favor of (liberal) driven talk. Keillor was prescient; non-fiction examples surround us. Speaking for myself, I inhabit a middle ground, where Fox “News” and Rachel Maddow are equally tiresome.

  2. Robert Sullivan

    And yet some critics still say NPR is too “centrist,” “corporate” and “deferential” to power.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Oddly, it’s both. Very much like The New York Times in that regard.

  3. Stan Franzeen

    I saw his piece as well and was not surprised.

    Although I don’t use an algorithm to measure how I reference media, it seems to me that many stories that should be of interest and critical concern are ignored by NPR, the NYT and the WPost.

    When I find reports elsewhere, I sometimes question their credibility, but they never seem to get attention in the MSM.

    As an octogenarian and an aging progressive, my most trusted media sources seem to be losing credibility with the general public.

    And that’s a formula for Trump to win in November.

    • MP F

      Agreed; and it’s heartbreaking. But to which “reports elsewhere” do you refer. please?

  4. MP Feitelberg

    I fear you may be mistaking Subversion Trolls for actual readers. Sometimes we all go a tad strident, or passion may render us pedantic. But few “on our side” are demanding sorts, much less presuming others’ indulgence. And while it’s impossible to suss the volume of sham opinions out there, when the trend began it was easy enough to see the outliers. At sites like America Magazine, the tenor changed in a matter of weeks; then the arrivistes’ style drove out many of The Old Guard, and others beside. Many a newcomer was unabashedly posturing, prone to hyperbole and generalization, logging one marathon session after another.

  5. Ben Starr

    One aspect of why i stopped listening to NPR that he omits is that the interviewers are both unprepared and tilted left such that they accept left leaning interviewees statements with no supporting evidence. I am not suggesting a crossfire type interview where the interviewee says “orange” and the interviewer then says “But what about green?”. I mean a pushback for details when an interviewee advocating for student loan debt relief makes sweeping statements with big round numbers that are easily checked and put into more accurate context by anyone attempting any research prior the interview. The interviewers also seem to often mischaracterize advocates as experts on a topic.

    • Mike LaBonte

      Ben describes the cognitive bias that affects all of us, including journalists. I would like to hear more “how do you know that?” and “can you cite a source?”. But there is a hesitancy to put people on the spot when you want them (and others) to interview them again. Yet, if an interviewee truly is an expert they will be able to back up their assertions.

  6. Benjamin Lowengard

    I find this true with a lot of News organizations, I think it reflects management mindset, and the consolidation of Journalism checks and balances in editorial staff. GBH has a popular 3 hour show with Eagan and Braude who don’t have a regular conservative correspondent and touch conservative POV only occasionally by interviewing GOP politicians (not often) or taking listener call-ins. I’ve listened to them for a long time and there are times when the bias is overbearing (I’m a pretty progressive thinker too). I wish they’d add a regular conservative voice to their regular correspondents.

  7. Steven Payne

    I, an independent, started listening to and supporting NPR in the mid 70 and, for many years, they were almost exclusively my source of news and entertainment. The last straw came about during Obama’s second campaign for the Presidency. They would constantly paraphrase the Republican candidates but play sound bites of Obama’s talking points. There was such obvious election interference, I quit and will never return. It was a sad day. Now days, I hear about news they are reporting from other sources pointing out how devious they have become.

    • Jeff Martini

      Are you suggesting that NPR was influencing their audience to vote Democratic?

  8. Harris Meyer

    Your quote from the lawyer about dead fish floating on the top of the barrel was perfect, exactly captured my initial response to Berliner’s essay. Thanks.

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