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

Fish in a barrel: Berliner’s case against NPR is based on false and out-of-context facts

Robert Mueller. Photo (cc) 2012 by the White House.

Nearly 40 years ago I heard a lawyer tell a jury something in court that has stuck with me: If there’s a rotten fish floating around the top of the barrel, you’re under no obligation to reach in to see if there’s something better underneath. He was more eloquent (if no less graphic) than I, but you get the idea. If someone bolsters their argument with false or distorted facts, then you should feel free to disregard their larger point.

That’s why I want to return one more time to NPR senior business editor Uri Berliner’s long essay in The Free Press about what he regards as his employer’s move to the fringe left. Mainly he seems to be worked up about diversity workshops and a change in NPR’s audience from one that was more or less balanced ideologically to one that is overwhelmingly liberal and progressive — which, as I wrote earlier this week, is more a consequence of the great national sorting-out than of anything NPR itself has done.

But there were also three factual assertions he made. One is flat-out false; one is devoid of crucial context; and one is questionable. So here we go.

False. Berliner writes that special counsel Robert Mueller found “no credible evidence” that Donald Trump had engaged in collusion with Russia, writing, “Russiagate quietly faded from our programming.”

Berliner has essentially adopted then-Attorney General Bill Barr’s gloss of the Mueller report, which itself was false. When the full report came out, and when Mueller himself finally testified before a congressional committee, we learned that the truth was more complicated. First, “collusion” is not a legal concept. Second, there was massive evidence of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. Third, there was evidence that Trump had obstructed justice and had attempted to obstruct justice only to be stopped by those around him.

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“In his report, Mueller said his team declined to make a prosecutorial judgment on whether to charge Trump, partly because of a Justice Department legal opinion that said sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted,” according to this detailed fact-check by The Associated Press, headlined “Trump falsely claims Mueller exonerated him.” The AP added that Mueller “deliberately drew no conclusions about whether he collected sufficient evidence to charge Trump with a crime. He merely said that if prosecutors want to charge Trump once he is out of office, they would have that ability because obstacles to indicting a sitting president would be gone.”

Lacking crucial context. Berliner blasts NPR for failing to report on Hunter Biden’s laptop in the waning days of the 2020 campaign and for failing to come clean when it was later found to be genuine, writing: “The laptop did belong to Hunter Biden. Its contents revealed his connection to the corrupt world of multimillion-dollar influence peddling and its possible implications for his father.”

As proof, Berliner links to a Washington Post story that was published in March 2022 — that is, a year and a half after the New York Post published its initial story. That’s how long it took for The Washington to verify at least part of the hard drive’s content as genuine. The story notes: “The vast majority of the data — and most of the nearly 129,000 emails it contained — could not be verified by either of the two security experts who reviewed the data for The Post.” There’s also this:

Some other emails on the drive that have been the foundation for previous news reports could not be verified because the messages lacked verifiable cryptographic signatures. One such email was widely described as referring to Joe Biden as “the big guy” and suggesting the elder Biden would receive a cut of a business deal. One of the recipients of that email has vouched publicly for its authenticity but President Biden has denied being involved in any business arrangements.

In other words, The Washington Post was not able to find a single verified email tying President Biden to his son’s business dealings, leaving anything beyond that to the he-said/he-said that we already knew about.

In addition, Berliner makes it sounded like NPR was unique in holding back on the laptop story in October 2020. But as The New York Times reported, even the New York Post — which, after all, is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — had trouble getting it out there. The reporter who wrote most of it refused to let the paper put his byline on it “because he had concerns over the article’s credibility.” Another staff member whose byline did appear did little work on the story and didn’t realize her name would be on it until after it was published.

Even worse, Fox News, Murdoch’s 800-pound gorilla, reportedly took a pass on it, according to Mediaite, because the Trump operative who brought it to them, Rudy Giuliani, could not provide “sourcing and veracity” for the emails.

Contrary to Berliner’s complaint, the restraint that NPR showed was no different from that of any other news organization — including Fox News. No more than a small portion of the emails on hard drive have ever been verified, and none of those emails suggest any wrongdoing on the part of President Biden.

• Questionable. Berliner takes NPR to task for accepting without reservation the theory that COVID-19’s origins were most likely from a wild animal market in Wuhan, China, rather than from a leak at a nearby lab, complaining that “politics were blotting out the curiosity and independence that ought to have been driving our work.”

Admittedly, this complaint by Berliner is more legitimate than his other two examples. More than four years after the virus was discovered, we still don’t fully understand its origins, and it’s a fact that the story got caught up in our toxic political environment. As I wrote for GBH News in June 2021, the media — in their haste to dismiss a right-wing conspiracy theory that COVID was created as part of a Chinese bioweapons program — leaned too hard in the other direction, rejecting any possibility that COVID had come from anywhere other than the Wuhan market.

That said, deep dives by the media over the past several years have turned up nothing definitive, and it still seems more likely than not that COVID sprang up from the market rather than from a lab experiment gone awry. Once again, I think Berliner is being too hard on his employer.

Which appears to be the point. By going public with his complaints about the culture inside NPR, Berliner may have accomplished the impossible: He’s made it so that his continued tenure at NPR is untenable while at the same time rendering himself unfirable. I detect a resignation and a fat contract with Fox News in Berliner’s immediate future.

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  1. Stephen Bero

    Thanks for staying on top of this, Dan. Berliner will probably also get regular employment from Bari Weiss.

  2. Paul

    This is the best take I’ve seen on this news item. Many of the other news outlets are overlooking these important facts.

  3. Randall Adair

    What a stupid take. 1000% guaranteed the writer is a leftist and never voted republican in their life. No couriousity about Joe and Hunters payoffs from foreign countries though. All the evidence is ignored because the leftist media might miss trump scratch his ass and they will have their quota filled for one day, or two if he rubbed his nose in the next 72 hour’s

    • Samuel Fuller


    • Whit

      I think it’s a bad idea to scratch your ass and then rub your nose, but it does seem consistent with Trump and his fans. Wash up before you eat, amigo.

  4. Rick Desper

    Berliner’s complaint seems to come down to “NPR is leftist because they didn’t play along with these shaky, unsupported right-wing theories.”

    There is absolutely no evidence supporting the lab origin theory for COVID-19. From a scientific standpoint, this was always a politically-motivated theory desperately looking for supporting evidence.

    Berliner’s embrace of Bill Barr’s objectively false description of the Mueller report and his demand that NPR trumpet the “Hunter Biden laptop” story that every media outlet understood at the time to be unreliable, show his main motivation. Berliner is a partisan soldier in the attack on objective journalism. He wants media outlets to serve the needs of his preferred political party, and cast aside traditional concerns about proper sourcing to do so.

    • Brian Springer

      The next journalistic question. Why “blow” the whistle now? As a self-described, poster-child liberal, I question his motivations. Why would you betray the trust of your colleagues? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Anecdotally, I’ve seen plenty of older white men around my age lose all perspective on the DEI initiative. They’ve lost the privilege of being the only opinion that matters.

      I’d also question if the NPR coverage of the Gaza war turning more sympathetic to the Palestinians may have played a part in biasing his viewpoint

    • Occam's razor

      Absolutely no evidence that COVID came from the market. It’s been proven that Fauci and DoD provided funding through Dasak and the Ecohealth Alliance to create the virus. The DIFUSE project, Fauci’s emails, and Anderson’s emails exposed it all.

  5. Uri is a NEWS reporter. He had a clear conflict of interest in reporting the news and editorializing on it at the same time.

    If his ethics are so impeccable, he should’ve quit NPR first and then published his op-ed. He had to have known the blowback this would cause; he probably already had another job waiting for him elsewhere.

    Meanwhile, Scott Simon has been editorializing for years, on the air and in print, and NPR does nothing about it. His rah-rah-let’s-go-to-war-in-Afghanistan op-ed in the WSJ was a good example.

    Incidentally, I didn’t do anything of the sort when I was involved in the Occupy movement in 2011. I WASN’T an NPR employee at the time. Yet NPR tried to destroy my career.

    It’s so afraid of being tainted with the dirty “L” word — liberal — that it bends over backwards to appease its corporate and foundation supporters (and, of course, conservatives in Congress). That in itself is hilarious, because despite all the performative woke DEI stuff, which is indeed phony-baloney and profoundly illiberal, NPR is corporate to its core. Middle of the road, don’t rock the boat.

  6. Dorothy Mundy

    First a confession – I listen to NPR all the time. I would really love to see our press just plain and simple tell the truth and not both sides everything. Seems to me that way more republicans get to have a say on NPR than dems. How many news rooms actually call Trump a liar? When we all know that 90% of what comes out of his mouth is a lie. I’d like to see the press cover what exactly is in a bill passed by Congress and then name the people who actually voted for is as opposed to those who showed up and took credit for it after the fact. I’d like to see the nepotism in the Trump White House covered like it would have been if Biden had placed his son Hunter in the same position that Trump put Jared and Ivanka. But that doesn’t seem to happen any where near the level that it should. No wonder people still think that Republicans are fiscal conservatives even though they are responsible for almost all of our countries debt with the tax cuts they give to the rich and corporations. NPR comes closest to covering some of this but it could be even better. SIMPLY the TRUTH

  7. Shawn graves

    Is this a joke? The entire Russian collusion hoax was created by people connected to Democrats and Hillary Clinton. Also, there may not be explicit emails connecting connecting Joe Biden to foreign payments, but there was more than enough revealing information on the whole Biden influence peddling scheme. But apparently no self respecting so called journalist has any interest investigating this despite it being illegal for family members to profit from bribery. And to then to claim that Covid could have still come from the wet market is just delusional because there is no evidence to show where it came from. That is because China covered up its true origins and refused to allow any outside investigators to participate. Your article completely validates Berliners whole point that most mainstream journalists live in a bubble and echo chamber and refuse to consider other view points.

  8. Doug Lavin

    So as a journalist, are you suggesting that the media was right about Trump’s Russian collusion all along and that Adam Schiff really did deliver the bombshell evidence he promised all along? Are you arguing that the Hunter Biden lap top story was not worthy of coverage (cannot imaging what the press would have done if it was a Jared Kushner lap top!)? Are you suggesting that the press (including NPR) was right all along about the origin in COVID and justified in shaming/cancelling anyone that suggested it came from a lab? It is columns like this that make the majority of Americans realize that NPR and their friends in the mainstream media cannot be trusted to report the truth.

  9. Joe V.

    Anyone who leads with denying the Russian hoax not being the Clinton funded operation that it was, is immediately disqualified from serious consideration.

    The Russia collusion lie fall right down there with the Alex Jone’s Sandy Hook denials. I think there is a job awaiting Mr. Kennedy at Infowars should he apply.

    The author’s second point is just a risable, because privately funded companies like the Washington Post covered up the Biden laptop story for political purposes, it was OK for NPR to do so – despite NPR receiving public funds to theoretically not be a propoganda organ for either the Demcocrats or GOP (since Dems outnumber Republicans 87-0 in the “newsroom”, we can be assured that it will be a while before NPR trumpets any non-extreme left themes).

    The author’s third point combines the illogic of the first two. That is, 1) the author has the actual temerity to falsely state that a “bat from hell” in the Wuhan market more than likely started COVID instead of the predominance of evidence since indicates otherwise; and, 2) because other privately funded news organizations improperly censored facts, it is OK that NPR conducted its own pernicious censorship.

    As noted above, I appears this “article” is intended as a lead resume link for a job application to either NPR or Infowars.

  10. Sean OConnor

    This article says that Berliner mischaracterised the Mueller Report as saying that there was no evidence of collusion.

    NPR itself released an article called “Mueller Report Finds No Evidence Of Russian Collusion” on March 24, 2019, by Philip Ewing.

    This article takes the lack of conclusion on obstruction (and arguments arising therefrom) to mean that there actually *was* evidence of collusion. Which by the author’s own rotten fish principle, makes him unworthy of any further consideration.

    I’m guessing this author thinks that an 87-0 Dem-GOP ratio in the newsroom and the new CEO’s long and ludicrously left wing social media record don’t mean anything either. After all, 87-0 is the sort of ratio that occurs naturally in a country with a roughly 33-33-33 Dem-GOP-Ind split, right?

    Why be concerned when the CEO is on record saying things like ‘Wikipedia’s desire to be open and free are a white male construct that I oppose’, or saying it’s hard to be angry about looting during BLM protests…

    • Dan Kennedy

      You are literally giving us a story about Bill Barr’s false characterization of the Mueller report, issued well in advance of the public’s being able to see the report for itself. Barr later was admonished by a judge for lying about the report. Berliner offers no evidence for his 87-0 figure, and in fact most journalists are registered independents.

  11. bairkus

    Dan, your arguments might pick the meat off of the issue, but they leave the bones intact. The beast is clearly recognizable to the rest of the country that is not liberal. Have you not heard NPR describe itself as a “progressive” organization?? What the h3II do you think that means, anyway?!

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