Uri Berliner fit in at National Public Radio. He admits as much, writing for the Free Press, “I’m Sarah Lawrence–educated, was raised by a lesbian peace activist mother, I drive a Subaru, and Spotify says my listening habits are most similar to people in Berkeley.”

But after 25 years, Berliner no longer conformed with the culture at NPR in a significant way: He came to believe that the news organization’s increasingly left-of-left bent was not in line with its mission and the best interests of America.

“It’s true NPR has always had a liberal bent, but during most of my tenure here, an open-minded, curious culture prevailed. We were nerdy, but not knee-jerk, activist, or scolding. In recent years, however, that has changed. Today, those who listen to NPR or read its coverage online find something different: the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the U.S. population,” Berliner wrote.

He went on to detail what he considered some of NPR’s offenses, which include willfully ignoring the Hunter Biden laptop story (broken by The New York Post shortly before the 2020 election) and eagerly pursuing allegations that Donald Trump had colluded with Russia in the 2016 election (which an investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller proved false).

Conservatives could probably catalogue many more offenses if they listened to NPR — but increasingly, they don’t. In 2011, Berliner wrote, “Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal.” In 2023, the number of “very” or “somewhat” conservative listeners fell to 11%, and the number of “very” or “somewhat” liberals leapt to 67%.

In other words, National Public Radio is not serving an audience that looks like America, but one that looks like coastal elites.

The response to Berliner’s article was predictably apoplectic from both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives renewed their calls for NPR to be defunded. Liberals at NPR were enraged by what they see as betrayal by a colleague, and Berliner was promptly suspended (officially for writing for another publication without permission) and shortly thereafter resigned.

NPR’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, wrote to her staff: “Asking a question about whether we’re living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions. Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

But, as Berliner points out, identity does matter when newsrooms are deeply blue. He polled his former NPR colleagues and found 87 registered Democrats and zero Republicans. That tracks with other polling that has found only 3.4% of of journalists nationwide identify as Republicans.

When I first started working as a daily newspaper reporter in the 1980s, journalists’ partisan leanings were rarely discussed, either inside or outside the newsroom. We were encouraged to vote, of course, but were not supposed to make our political preferences known publicly; even putting a political bumpersticker on our cars was verboten. Impartiality, if not always achieved, was at least valued. And it went without saying that the news was to be written and presented without taking a side.

Contrast this to today, when some reporters freely share political opinions on social media, and coverage of Donald Trump, in particular, often seems motivated by a collective goal of the industry to keep him out of office, no matter what the electorate decides. (Berliner again: “During a meeting with colleagues, I 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.”)

Speaking Tuesday at Yale University, at an event organized by the Buckley Institute, former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet explained the trajectory of journalism that has resulted in near record lows of the public’s trust in media. The traditional values of journalists — being humble, curious and empathetic to people of all viewpoints — are supposed to inform reporting that enables citizens to learn all sides of an issue and make up their own minds. Journalists aren’t supposed to tell people what they should think, which is what Berliner said NPR does. (With exception: Opinion writers, of course, do try to persuade.)

Journalist James Bennet, formerly an editor at The New York Times and The Atlantic, speaks Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at the Buckley Institute at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. | Buckley Institute

Bennet believes that today’s journalists aren’t doing enough listening, which is evident when they express surprise about Trump’s popularity. One reason is that they’re not spending enough time out in the real world with actual people and are writing too many stories about things that happen online.

“Journalists are supposed to be the best listeners in society, better even than therapists, I think. But when journalists begin to believe that it’s not only necessary, but virtuous to shut people up, to shut them out, then I think the country’s really in trouble.” Bennet said, adding, “The internet leaves us with almost cartoonish stereotypes of people we don’t have experience with.”

He told a story about a Times reporter who was sent to a political rally in 2016 to talk to Trump supporters. When she returned, he asked what she had learned and she said she was surprised by how nice everyone was. “I heard the same sentiment expressed two weeks ago by another journalist,” he said.

Bennet noted that another Times editor had said in 2020 that he didn’t understand how Trump got elected, a statement Bennet called “an extraordinary admission of being disconnected from the reality on the ground.”

“It always needs to be said, (the Times) still does great work, and some of its reporters show great courage. But the paper hasn’t done a good job, I don’t think, of informing its readers in recent years of what their fellow citizens believe and why they believe it. Or showing them the true center, and the true range and richness, of American debate.”

As for the future of journalism, Bennet didn’t seem optimistic. The title of his speech, after all, was “Why Journalism is Falling Apart and Taking Liberalism With It.” When news organizations and digital media, competing for advertisers in the fragmented industry, rely on subscriptions for revenue, partisanship is incentivized, he said. “The paradox of the Internet is that now in the 21st century, it’s returning us to the 19th-century news environment, a splintered news media environment, where you get to kind of choose your own adventure, picking the niche journal that best conforms to your own view of the world.”

For liberals, that niche journal may be NPR — for the time being, at least. Energized by Berliner’s essay, conservatives like Christopher Rufo are going after Maher, NPR’s new CEO, hoping to topple her like the Ivy League presidents ousted last fall. And the editors of National Review published a piece simply titled “Defund NPR.”

Berliner, for his part, says he doesn’t want to see NPR lose the funding it gets from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but this response is something he could have seen coming. NPR has long been a stick in conservatives’ craw; they’d like this expose to lead to NPR’s last stand. It won’t be — the furor will likely subside as controversy has in the past, while the news landscape continues to fragment until the behemoths of media get it right. I, for one, have hope that they will. Because listening just isn’t that hard.