How a focus on diversity has strengthened NPR

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Mike Janssen, created with DALL-E 3

On April 9, Uri Berliner — at the time, a senior editor at NPR — published an op-ed in The Free Press critiquing his employer. Berliner’s main argument? NPR has lost the public’s trust due to its overemphasis on race and gender diversity within the newsroom. The focus on race, identity, and intersectional axes of oppression, he argues, has come at the expense of rigorous journalism.

Uri Berliner derides the work of former CEO John Lansing for his “North Star” plan, which made dismantling systemic racism a priority at the organization. Berliner then decries the lack of “viewpoint diversity” at the organization, conceptualizing diversity here as a balance between perspectives reflecting Republican and Democratic party affiliations.[1]

Berliner’s argument — that NPR has lost America’s trust through an overemphasis on race and identity coverage — is both ahistorical and asociological. It is an argument that disregards both the organization’s founding mission and history.

It is essential to contextualize Uri Berliner’s claims in the longer history of public radio and of racial segregation. I want to make three points. First, Uri Berliner’s conceptualization of “viewpoint diversity” ignores the histories of racial segregation that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, while imperfect, seek to correct. Second, his claims that the organization is losing the trust of “the public” due to overemphasis on race and identity misunderstands the role of public media in a society dominated by corporate media interests. Third, and most crucially, the increase in journalists of color at the organization has created a more robust and nuanced analysis of current events, making NPR better equipped to serve communities traditionally underserved by commercial media.

1. What diversity initiatives is Berliner referring to, and why are they necessary at NPR?

There are ample grounds on which diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives can be critiqued. The concept of diversity in the organizational context is often vague and ill-defined. It is well established that some policies within broad DEI initiatives offer only symbolic and surface-level changes that do not ameliorate racial inequalities. Social science researchers like Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield and Dr. Melissa Abad have shown that DEI’s implementation can result in additional labor for employees of color, who are presumed to have the cultural knowledge to make their workplaces more inclusive. Indeed, I’ve written elsewhere about the pressure for journalists of color at local public radio stations to act as cultural brokers in bringing in more nonwhite sources to their coverage. As one of my respondents declared: “All the nonwhite voices: All the nonwhite people are bringing them to the station.” Because of the lack of institutional support and preparation accompanying stations’ DEI policies, it was incumbent on this respondent, a Black journalist, and her colleagues of color to bring race and gender diversity to their source lists.

But Berliner does not touch on these issues in implementing diversity efforts. Instead, his critique centers on the implementation of systems that track the diversity of sources used in reporting and the growth of employee resource groups (which he refers to as affinity groups) at the organization. Source-tracking efforts effectively redistribute the workload of including women and people of color on source lists. The tracking system is an initiative launched to address a history of underrepresentation of such sources at the organization without disproportionately burdening the employees of color at NPR with this daunting task.

And while Berliner bemoans the power that employee resource groups have for influencing union priorities, employees of color I spoke to characterize the groups as a way to be heard in an organization that had historically listened to and provided for people more like Uri Berliner (i.e., a centrist white man from the professional middle class) than like anyone else. As Lewis Raven Wallace diagnosed it, “Many older, wealthier white men are demonstrably pissed that they are no longer being catered to at every turn, in every area of society.”

Berliner concludes the piece with an ahistorical call for “viewpoint diversity.” Affirmative action programs and diversity initiatives have emerged as a response to a long and specific history of racial segregation in the United States. The emphasis on race and identity in more recent programming serves as a corrective to coverage that was once more homogeneously white in voice and perspective. And the resource groups he mentions represent people who have been historically marginalized in the U.S. and in NPR’s coverage. Republicans are not a historically marginalized or disenfranchised group, yet Berliner is calling for their representation as if they are underserved.

2. NPR, in accordance with its mission to carry out the Public Broadcasting Act, is meant to serve underserved publics.

NPR is a nonprofit organization meant to serve as an alternative to for-profit media outlets subject to commercial influence. As Susan Smulyan notes, when radio became more popular in the United States in the 1920s, the commercialization of radio went from a controversial and contested concept to an enshrined feature of the industry in the Communications Act of 1934. Public radio, born out of educational radio networks, was meant to offer an alternative to the already immense and dominant commercial system of broadcasting constructed in the 1930s and entrenched throughout the ensuing decades.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; this corporation established PBS and NPR. In the Act’s own words, “It is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” Thus, it is not the charge of public broadcasting to cover programs in a way that gives equal airtime to Democrats and Republicans, their ideas, and their viewpoints. Rather, it is a way to offer robust coverage free from commercial influence. I have written in a previous post for Current about how public radio has consistently fallen short of serving underserved communities of color. This is something that an emphasis on diversity in the newsroom serves to rectify. The focus is particularly salient given the charge to address the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.

3. How has the increase of journalists of color at NPR changed the organization?

The increase of journalists of color at NPR has been an engine for increasing the salience of race and identity in the organization’s coverage. While Berliner argues that the presumption of systemic racism as a pervasive issue is detrimental to journalism, it is well established by existing academic research. It is also in line with NPR’s own investigative journalism on institutional racism. Code Switch Senior Editor Leah Donnella responded to Berliner’s critique well in the show’s newsletter:

In regard to the question posed by the essay: We know that systemic racism exists. In law enforcement. In education. In housing. In healthcare. In hiring. In government and environmental policy. Oh yeah, and in journalism. NPR has reported in depth on every single one of these topics. That reporting existed long before 2020. Anyone who, in good faith, wanted to know if systemic racism was real would have decades of resources to turn to, both within NPR’s archives and in the vast library of human knowledge.

It is the sort of assessment that audiences have come to expect from Code Switch, one of NPR’s most popular shows and an award-winning one at that. If Berliner does not want to presume systemic racism at every turn, he can turn to the rigorous journalism at his own outlet that has instantiated it. Based on my interviews with 83 people of color who have worked within public radio, the increase in people of color in public radio has made such nuanced, sociologically robust coverage more common.

In analyzing patterns and best practices that emerged from my conversations with public radio journalists of color, I saw their attention to nonwhite and nonmale sources, focus on structural forces that shape the stories of the day, and commitment to historically underserved communities. Further, I found that they push the boundaries of how public radio sounds by advocating for non-American accents and ways of speaking associated with nonwhite communities. I find it heartening that Berliner is “speaking out” about such shifts; it is a signal that these practices are making a difference in a still white-dominant organizational culture.

Pushing through the backlash

When put in a sociological context, the fact that Berliner is making these arguments is unsurprising. Sociologists of race are well aware that whiteness is seen as the default and neutral perspective for many white Americans. Further, the choice to air these views in The Free Press is similarly unsurprising, given its reputation for platforming reactionary polemics on “wokeness” and “cancel culture.”

The op-ed has been reported on by a variety of mainstream commercial media sources, among them The New York Times, who has rightly noted a broader financial crisis that plagues the organization and questions about its future.

At the same time, Berliner’s piece has galvanized Donald Trump and other Republicans who are once again calling for NPR’s defunding. “Defund NPR” campaigns arise with regularity on the right, a phenomenon about which media historian Jason Loviglio has written extensively.

But if we have the conversation about public radio’s value on Uri Berliner’s terms, we erase the progress that journalists of color have made within the organization and the legitimate critiques they still have about public radio as an institution. As one of my respondents, a Black journalist, put it in late 2020:

Journalism has always said that it holds people accountable, that it sheds a light, you know, where it needs to be shed. But I feel like people of color are really the ones who are pushing and defining what that really looks like, because journalism has for so long been subjected to the status quo in many ways, especially around policing, especially around white supremacy. 

To try to satisfy Uri Berliner’s concerns would be distracting to NPR’s mission. It’s worth reiterating here what Toni Morrison has said about the function of racism: distraction. “It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Thus, my interest in studying public radio’s production processes is in considering how journalists of color push further, and how the organization does or does not accommodate such pushes. To quote a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, by Shereen Marisol Meraji, journalism scholar and one of the original hosts of Code Switch, “Good thing we will be focusing on something else shortly. This has already consumed too much precious time.”

Laura Garbes is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Her research explores the intersection of race, performance, and organizations. Her current project focuses on the racialization of sound and voice in public broadcasting.

[1] I will not be debunking his piece, or his examples of story coverage, point by point here. For this, I would point you to already existing excellent work that has countered his claims. Aaron Fritschner has skillfully debunked many of the claims point by point on X in a thread that cites more sources than the original article. Alicia Montgomery’s article in Slate, “The Real Story Behind NPR’s Current Problems,” offers a powerful counternarrative to Berliner’s account of the organization.

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