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Trying to get in on the Intellectual Dark Web grift

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When Uri Berliner filed his “the problem with NPR is LIBERAL BIAS” blog in the Bari Press, it was pretty clear he was going to follow the “I will quit because you won’t fire me” path blazed by the editor. Conveniently, he makes clear that he’s full of shit very quickly:

Like many unfortunate things, the rise of advocacy took off with Donald Trump. As in many newsrooms, his election in 2016 was greeted at NPR with a mixture of disbelief, anger, and despair. (Just to note, I eagerly voted against Trump twice but felt we were obliged to cover him fairly.) But what began as tough, straightforward coverage of a belligerent, truth-impaired president veered toward efforts to damage or topple Trump’s presidency. 

Persistent rumors that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia over the election became the catnip that drove reporting. At NPR, we hitched our wagon to Trump’s most visible antagonist, Representative Adam Schiff. 

Schiff, who was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, became NPR’s guiding hand, its ever-present muse. By my count, NPR hosts interviewed Schiff 25 times about Trump and Russia. During many of those conversations, Schiff alluded to purported evidence of collusion. The Schiff talking points became the drumbeat of NPR news reports.

But when the Mueller report found no credible evidence of collusion, NPR’s coverage was notably sparse. Russiagate quietly faded from our programming. 

It is one thing to swing and miss on a major story. Unfortunately, it happens. You follow the wrong leads, you get misled by sources you trusted, you’re emotionally invested in a narrative, and bits of circumstantial evidence never add up. It’s bad to blow a big story.

There’s nothing like media criticism by someone who is eager to announce that he has no idea what he’s talking about. By “Mueller Report” what he clearly means is “Bill Barr’s dishonest partisan summary of the Mueller Report” — and of course he completely ignores the even more extensive evidence of collision between the Trump campaign and Russia. NPR dropping the story proves the precise opposite of what he thinks, leading to this huge swing and miss. As usual, radical centrist complaints about “liberal bias” boil down to complaints that the media won’t uncritically repeat Republican talking points that are treated as conventional wisdom by under-informed people.

To anybody who was still listening to NPR during the 2016 campaign, the idea that it was dominated by “liberal bias” is absolutely laughable. Above all else, as Alicia Montgomery explains in a vastly better piece that will get a fraction of the attention, NPR has long been dominated by the those of BothSidesism, which in practice means bending over backward to placate conservative listeners:

It did take a kind of courage for Uri to publicly criticize the organization. But it also took a lot of the wrong type of nerve. His argument is a demonstration of contemporary journalism at its worst, in which inconvenient facts and obvious questions were ignored, and the facts that could be shaped to serve the preferred argument were inflated in importance.

Take a step into the way-back machine to 2011, Uri’s so-called golden age. That’s the year when senior members of the development team fell for a scam set up by professional provocateur James O’Keefe. The aftermath took them out and toppled then–CEO and President Vivian Schiller. It came months after the ill-timed, clumsy firing of Juan Williams, which led to senior vice president of news Ellen Weiss resigning under pressure.

Uri also leapfrogs over a long list of contemporary fuckups and questionable calls that could explain the growing public distrust that concerns him. There were questions about NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg’s personal relationship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg compromising her reporting; the departure of news chief Mike Oreskes, and other prominent men in the newsroom‚ after a wave of sexual harassment charges; the exposure of systematic exploitation of NPR’s temporary workforce. And those are just the public problems.

Behind the scenes and stretching back into the “golden age,” there were major strategic errors that seriously damaged the network’s prospects. The founding producer of The Daily at the New York Times was Theo Balcomb, a senior producer at All Things Considered who couldn’t get enough support to launch a morning news podcast inside NPR. There was the “Flat is the new growth” mantra that reigned for a few years after the network decided that a multimedia future meant shrugging off softness in listener numbers for core shows. Then there was the time in the late aughts when leadership decided that podcasting wasn’t going to amount to much, and so pumped the brakes on early efforts. Though the failure of imagination started earlier; the first big blunder I saw was in the late 1990s, when the network failed to lock in a deal with a little show called This American Life.

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. But top editors dismissed the chance of a Trump win repeatedly, declaring that Americans would be revolted by this or that outrageous thing he’d said or done. I remember one editorial meeting where a white newsroom leader said that Trump’s strong poll numbers wouldn’t survive his being exposed as a racist. When a journalist of color asked whether his numbers could be rising because of his racism, the comment was met with silence. In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton. Another colleague asked what to do if one candidate just lied more than the other. Another silent response.

Berliner’s willful cluelessness involves ignoring both the many fake or overblown Clinton scandals that dominated 2016 coverage while also claiming that a real scandal involving Trump is fake. It’s a good application for the Bari gravy train, although how much is left in the boat at this late date is questionable — there are so many of these people who want the most they can possibly get for the least they can possibly do.

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