A recent article in The Free Press, by Uri Berliner, a NPR senior editor who has worked at the iconic news station for 25 years, exposed how his organization, like many other mainstream media publications, lost the trust of the American people.

Berliner identifies himself as part of the wealthy, white progressive elite, the stereotype of NPR’s typical listener, but he believes this stereotype was not always the whole truth. As recently as 2011, he said the statistics showed a more balanced consumer base of 26% conservative, 23% moderate, and 37% liberal. By 2023, though, conservatives only made up 11% of NPR listeners, while liberals made up 67%.

“We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals,” he said.  

Berliner blamed the change on the loss of the organizations “open-minded spirit” during the Trump era. He said they went all in on the “Russian collusion” story but then barely covered the Mueller Report’s conclusion debunking it. It was much the same with the COVID-origin debate, where they framed theories of a human source at the Wuhan virology lab as racis conspiracy theories, but then quietly ignored mounting evidence that it was the most-likely origin.

He said they also began to choose their stories based on political impact, remembering how, on the Hunter Biden laptop story, he “listened as one of NPR’s best and most fair-minded journalists said it was good we weren’t following the laptop story because it could help Trump.”

But the most-noticeable evidence of a shift in approach was during the Black Lives Matter movement, when NPR leadership took the view that “America’s infestation with systemic racism was declared loud and clear: it was a given. Our mission was to change it.”

The newsroom became a very political place, with DEI initiatives, affinity groups for every identity group, race- and gender-tracking systems for story interviewees, and a declaration that diversity was the new “North Star” of the organization.

But not diversity of viewpoint. Berliner began bringing up the less open-minded environment and how it was turning away huge swaths of former listeners, while creating no appreciable growth in black or Hispanic listenership. After he was stonewalled and dismissed, he decided to do some of his own research.

“I looked at voter registration for our newsroom,” he said. “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.”

This statistic reminded me of similar numbers in higher education, where a registered Republican is often a rarity. A recent look at political donations by law professors showed only one exclusively Republican donor at North Carolina’s three included schools (UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, and Wake Forest) and 89 exclusively Democrat donors.

Now, one might accuse me of hypocrisy calling for intellectual diversity in newsrooms while writing for an ideologically right-of-center publication, as our publisher, the John Locke Foundation, has a stated ideological mission in favor of a limited government and free markets. Many equivalent publications exist on the left as well. This is healthy and is part of an ideologically diverse news landscape.

But for mainstream news sources that present themselves as neutral, especially ones like NPR that are funded in part by government grants, multiple views need to be taken into consideration in coverage, if only to avoid missing major stories and angles of inquiry. The easiest way to do that is to have an intellectually diverse newsroom.

When this is not the case, gaping holes emerge and facts are sacrificed to narratives. NPR wasn’t the only publication that threw objectivity to the wind during the Black Lives Matter protests. Story after story was published about incident after incident from publisher after publisher that, in hindsight, were embarrassingly false. (Breonna Taylor wasn’t asleep, and police, who did have a warrant, only fired after her boyfriend shot an officer through the door. Trayvon Martin viciously attacked George Zimmerman then died in a struggle for his gun. Michael Brown did not have his hands up saying, “Don’t shoot,” but was shot after, similarly, attacking an officer and trying to steal his gun.)

Why did the media keep falling for these false narratives time after time? It was, like Berliner said, because they didn’t consider, or didn’t dare, question them.

Here in North Carolina, a similar incident just resolved with a Pender County court awarding members of an allegedly racist mob $6 million. In May of 2020, the same month as George Floyd’s death, this mob knocked on the door of the Shepard family, a black mother and her teenage son, intimidating them. One of the men was in a sheriff’s deputy uniform and another was wielding a gun.

A CNN article, titled “America’s legacy of lynching isn’t all history. Many say it’s still happening today,” used the incident as an example of a racist white lynch mob.

Other media organizations followed suit. Many of them ran with the narrative of the Shepard family’s lawyers, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The News & Observer, for example, reported matter-of-factly that the Shepard family “was threatened by a mob of armed whites who came to the wrong home.”

Attorney Grady Richardson, who represented two of the men in the group, told WECT that the comments made were “things such as social media posts by the defendant referring to my folks as white supremacists, drawing comparisons to my clients’ actions as those of the KKK night rides.”

But this week’s judgement showed that once the story of the “mob” was presented — first in the 2021 case that acquitted them of wrong doing and now to the civil trial jury — that the initial narrative simply didn’t fit the facts. For one, Jordan Kita and his multiracial family were frantically looking for his biracial sister, who was in a mental health crisis and had gone missing, allegedly in that neighborhood. The sister is biologically his cousin but was adopted and is considered one of his siblings. The Kitas can be seen below, Jordan being the young man in the back wearing a red shirt.

Mary Kita, center; and Timothy Kita, right; have a multiracial household. Jordan Kita, the former deputy, is pictured in the back right. His sister, who they looked for that night, is biracial and is not pictured.
Fair use for commentary. Image by Mark Darrough of Port City Daily

Kita apologized to the Shepards for scaring them and for wearing his uniform while off duty. He said he forgot he was wearing it as he frantically left work to find his sister. While Kita was fired for the incident, after his acquittal he has since returned to work, according to WECT.

It is understandable that the Shepards would be frightened by the group and even that it could remind some in the black community of racist mobs intimidating black residents in the middle of the night, especially in the Wilmington area, which has a dark history of such scenes. But real journalists, as Berliner suggests, dig deeper. If they had, they’d have found a very different story — that of a mixed-race family searching for their minority daughter, not of a racist mob of Klansman out to lynch a black family.

More intellectual diversity in newsrooms can only help avoid future media frenzies of this nature.