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NPR’s Katherine Maher saga is a lesson for conservatives

Katherine Maher speaking in Lisbon last year. Credit: Getty

April 19, 2024 - 5:15pm

Katherine Maher, CEO of America’s only publicly-funded radio station, has been the internet’s main character for several days now, since one of her senior editors published a scathing piece for The Free Press on NPR’s liberal bias. In it, Uri Berliner accused NPR of changing from a broadly representative, if Left-leaning, cross-section of American views to a bullhorn for “the distilled worldview of a very small segment of the U.S. population”. Maher suspended him; he very publicly resigned.

The heat has been turned up by campaigner Christopher Rufo, recently credited with pressuring Harvard President Claudine Gay into resigning. After sifting Maher’s social media footprint, Rufo has been releasing excerpts as supporting evidence for Berliner’s allegations. The result has been a Right-wing feeding frenzy. Taken together, the clips serve as a kind of meta-commentary on the NPR debacle and the wider trend it exemplifies: a battle, within a once purportedly neutral journalistic space, over the ownership — and even the possibility — of authoritative knowledge. They also reveal the new front lines in an emerging internet-era struggle over speech, knowledge, and politics in which — as Maher herself clearly recognises — many of the print era’s most cherished assumptions no longer apply.

In the clips, Maher holds forth on the internet’s role as a breeding-ground for just the kind of contest over truth now playing out at NPR. Berliner alleged bias and manipulation among NPR journalists; in response, 50 staffers signed a letter demanding she rebuke “factual inaccuracies and elisions” in his report. Clearly, Maher views authoritative platforms and institutions as having a duty both to remain agnostic about absolute truth and to impose moral conformity.

Maher, who used to run Wikimedia, describes Wikipedia as “pretty flawed” in one clip because white men are overrepresented among its editors. Another shows her describing the same problem in its founding paradigm of what knowledge ought to be, and expressing a desire to incorporate more marginalised perspectives. For Maher, then, platforms such as Wikipedia have an institutional obligation to shape the parameters of knowledge production itself, in line with a Left-wing critique of the entirety of knowledge.

In a separate video, Maher describes America’s First Amendment free speech protections as a bug, not a feature, “the number one challenge” in her fight against disinformation. Elsewhere, she describes how she wants to “stamp out bad information” and shepherd the public so they cluster “within the good information” as a “collective”. In yet another clip, she argues that the sheer scale of internet governance throws earlier assumptions about “rights” radically into question.

For Maher, authoritative platforms have a duty to control knowledge production and police the boundaries of speech, imposing formal relativism while writing the Good People’s moral precepts into the parameters of what is sayable and knowable. Meanwhile, the counter-melody of NPR’s staffers contesting Berliner’s article reminds us that while we may not like Maher’s moral framework, she’s right about the politicisation of truth.

Maher would never put it so bluntly, but the difference between the free circulation of information in the print and the digital eras is gatekeeping, effectively on the basis of intelligence and wealth (via the proxies of reading ability and leisure to write).

It’s easier to convince yourself that speech is always liberating and ordered to truth when the public square effectively filters out those who lack the capacity to think long-form or parse complex arguments. Yet now, thanks to smartphones and video, access isn’t an issue and participants need more than rudimentary literacy. In that environment, free speech can produce truth — but also, often, its inverse. Much of what circulates really is lies, and there are already cases of online mimetic feeding frenzies escalating into violence.

Should we respond to this? If so, how? Maher and her ilk are well ahead of their opponents. Especially since Covid, an emerging politics of attention and speech has formed around online discourse. What are we encouraged to notice? What gets “deboosted” or “demonetised”? The battlefield here is often not speech but computer code: just this week UnHerd published a report into the “Global Disinformation Index”, a very Maheresque nonprofit whose role is, in essence, to bake progressive moral preferences into the internet’s commercial incentive structure.

It’s unnerving to see apparently uncritical apostles of that worldview asserting their right to set the parameters of online knowledge-production. It’s exasperating to witness its parameters controlled, as they so often are, by sentimental bourgeois groupthink. But Maher might retort: can we afford not to censor? The Right may not like her solution, but she is at least thinking about the problem. Conservatives should take note.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
29 days ago

Here’s my Three Ages of Information, from my Substack:
Back in the Age of Parchment, only monks and the kingly Lord Keeper of the Great Seal got to publish information.
In the Age of the Printing Press, only educated intellectuals and professors and published writers got to publish information.
But now, in the Age of Free-for-all, anyone can publish information: anything, at any moment, for all the world to see. And the educated intellectuals and professors and published writers and their handlers in the ruling class don’t like it. Not at all.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago

I don’t think there were a lot of professors or published writers in the age of the printing press. Early on at least Rome controlled everything. They would not allow the Bible to be printed, although few were capable of reading it anyway.

Andrew D
Andrew D
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Rome did allow the bible to be printed, the Gutenberg press printed the vulgate version in the 1450s. In Latin of course, because that could be read by all educated people. Uneducated people didn’t read, either in Latin or the vernacular.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
28 days ago

And they are fighting it like the Pope’s troops did in the Renaissance breaking up printing presses. Monopoly of truth is, and has been, the goal.

harry storm
harry storm
27 days ago

I don’t know what Mary Harrington is talking about. Maher isn’t “thinking about the problem”. She and those like her ARE the problem.

J Bryant
J Bryant
29 days ago

The Right may not like her solution, but she is at least thinking about the problem. Conservatives should take note.
From my perspective, the Left are way ahead of the Right in terms of creating a unifying ideology and adapting to a fast-changing world. They are also much more organized and aggressive in enforcing their world view.
We’re still months away from the US election, but already my email is spammed with messages urging support for Biden. I haven’t seen anything from the Right so far. It’s uncomfortably reminiscent of the US midterms when a red wave was predicted but nothing happened–the Democrats spammed me then too, but not a peep from the Republicans.
Yesterday we were treated to the sight of the Kennedy clan publicly endorsing Biden in an attempt to neutralize Robert Kennedy Jr. Whether that spectacle resonated with anyone outside the Beltway is another question.
I don’t know the solution to this problem. Maybe we have to go through a period when, globally, conservatives reinvent themselves and find a core message they can unite around. The price of that consolidation period will likely be several more years of left-wing rule.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
29 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Quite right, the Left do seem to be much more effective at promoting their ideology than those interested in objective truth or even some right wing ideology. Of course it does help if you can propagandise the impressionable and ignorant young through schools, colleges and Universities, institutions that have become overwhelmingly leftist in staffing compared to former times.

T Bone
T Bone
29 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

A conglomeration of individuals can’t defeat a collective groupthink machine when the machine controls a critical mass of information production.

This isn’t a short term fix. One election cycle won’t make any difference. Culture really is upstream of Politics. The Left thinks long term. The Right needs to do the same. Change the awful culture first and then maybe you can do something about politics.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In 2020, the Republican Party had no platform for the first time in its history. Republicans need to create a platform, so voters can see what they stand for.

AC Harper
AC Harper
29 days ago

The NPR website reads of many ‘good things’ such as:

Our Mission

The mission of NPR, in partnership with its member stations, is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe.

Rather like the BBC (YMMV) it presents itself as a worthy establishment organisation. But establishment organisations are being increasingly lead by people who apply their specific world views consciously or unconsciously.
Now this would be fine if the service was commercial because people could choose to support it or find some other source. But the NPR is (mostly) funded by the state and how ever well intended it risks choosing the ‘truth’ from an approved menu. Sentimental bourgeois groupthink becomes propaganda if there is no attempt at balance.

Ryan K
Ryan K
29 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

a good assessment of NPR thought.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
29 days ago

The problem with the NPR, the BBC, and other like organizations, is that they SAY (about themselves) that they are objective, but what they SAY (in on-air commentary) is subjective.

If they described themselves as partisan outlets, out to convince you of the righteousness of their ideas, few or none would object.

The trouble arises when they (falsely) describe themselves as pure-hearted purveyors of truth, when in fact they are not-so-pure-hearted purveyors of opinion.


T Bone
T Bone
29 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

They actually don’t claim to be objective. They claim objectivity is impossible because competing claims have to be weighed. Since objectivity is impossible, existing truth has to be determined by “experts” and experts are chosen according to their “holistic worldview” on justice. IE the Lens of Oppressed/Oppressor.

Look up “Bothsidesism” on Wikipedia which is referred to as “false balance.” See if you can find the progressive bias.

Michael Friedman
Michael Friedman
29 days ago

Andrew Sullivan has an excellent piece on the illiberal views of NPR leadership.

Victor James
Victor James
29 days ago

Yes conservatives/classical liberals should take note. There is no discussion to be had with the likes of Maher. She has her worldview, we have ours. She wants to force people to adopt her views, we want debate.
The time for debate has ended, decades ago. The likes of Maher, who represent the fascist left, just don’t care. They laugh in your face.

Estes Kefauver
Estes Kefauver
16 days ago
Reply to  Victor James

Here are a couple more Maher-isms, to be aware of before her hearing:
“I mean, sure, looting is counterproductive, but it’s hard to be mad about protests not prioritizing the private property of a system of oppression founded on treating people’s ancestors as private property.”
-and: “White silence is complicity. If you are white, today is the day to start a conversation in your community.”
And she is the one to lead NPR to better inform the public…

Ryan K
Ryan K
29 days ago

I’ll have to read this again through….like Bari Weiss at the NY Times here is once again a journalist …a Jewish journalist…who protests the group think environment. Was he being personally harassed as she was? He felt the need to resign after being “punished” His assessment is exactly correct…. it began in the seventies as broad view if catering to the liberal, to the left….and now impossible to listen to with is repellent wokeism and its anti Zionism….like the NY Times.

Michael Lipkin
Michael Lipkin
29 days ago

The BBC used have a power base due to having a near monopoly on broadcasting. They would occasionally pick up on the most egregious cases of government malfeasance. The government couldn’t do much about that due the BBCs near monopoly on broadcasting technology and knowledge. Such a public broadcaster did allow the government more direct communication with the public, particularly during crisis times, e.g. war.
Now that these public broadcasters no longer have this near monopoly they have lost their power and must cleave ever closer to the hand that feeds them. At present this is the ‘deep state’ of ‘great and good’ etc (who have become increasingly paranoid).

John Murray
John Murray
29 days ago

The whole problem is NPR getting taxpayer’s money. Take that away and I wouldn’t care, indeed, it is what I’d expect if she was at MSNBC or what have you. As far as speech is concerned, let a thousand flowers bloom, but let me choose who I give my time, attention and money too. (Same feeling for the BBC license fee).

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
28 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

Yes – NPR should be defunded of government funding , ditto the BBC. Let the free market decide if their policies and products are worthy of being kept alive.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
26 days ago
Reply to  John Murray

That’s a superficially sound but dangerous message. Because even if none of the media agencies were taxpayer funded, the huge structural leftist bias in the major media organisations and their feeder university non STEM, BS degrees, would still be unacceptable and a major issue for society.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
28 days ago

Maher is leading the charge against malign free speech, which she calls a “male westernized construct.” She is not wrong of course, since its architects in the Enlightenment were all Western cis-males. She embraces censorship by the virtuous (of which she is a leader of course) in emulation of speech-controllers throughout the non-Western world. She is progressive.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
28 days ago

Mary neglects to take to task the very crux of Uri Berliner’s claim that NPR selectively chooses to publish the truth (no Hunter Biden laptop story for them) but more concerning is that it published conspiracies and lies abetted by Senator Adam Schiff for years on end about so-called ‘Russian collusion’ which all proved to be false, never correcting themselves. Maher is nothing but an ideologue and flack. Mary should know better.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
28 days ago

Maher seems to have one toe in the real world but her veiwpoints are terribly limited by the company she keeps. If she would only dine with UnHerd readers or writers once in a while, she might be saved.
But nothing is going to save NPR. The Republicans have been gunning for it for decades. In our age of phony leaders, like children playing House (and Senate), trashing NPR will seem like a big victory to them.
Meanwhile, the people’s business will continue to be neglected.

Kat L
Kat L
25 days ago

I’ll take any wins.

R Wright
R Wright
27 days ago

Excellent as ever. I also recommend a great Substack piece by Emil Kirkegaard about Maher’s time grifting hundreds of milliond in donations at Wikipedia and using the money to fund, among other groups, the Tides Foundation. That is the same Tides that has massively contributed to pushing puberty blockers, hormones and surgery for the past decade.

https://www.emilkirkegaard.com/p/the-wikipedia-fundraising-scam?lli=1&utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2

leonard o'reilly
leonard o'reilly
27 days ago

The NPR story is a “Dog Bites Man” story. Or perhaps, a “Iranian Mullahs Revealed as Anti-semitic!” headline in a Babylon Bee story.
Berliner is right ( he should know ) that NPR has always been left of centre but that it has become more radical and close-minded in the last dozen years or so. That is no surprise to anyone and is a generalized phenomenon, anyway. The Trump/Russia/lab leak/Biden laptop stories Berliner cites were all handled in the same disgraceful way in the mainstream media. What is unusual, of course, is the tell-all-defection-from-the-cult aspect of Berliner’s move.
There is a kind of inevitability in Katherine Maher’s ascension to the top at NPR. As I have seen ( yes, I clicked on all the links, every single damn one of them ), she is highly skilled in the bafflegab and banality required to “control knowledge production, and police the boundaries of speech”, as Mary Harrington rather hyperventilatingly put it. Maher believes in “consulting widely and inclusively [ in ] weighing difficult decisions”. That would be her consensus building.Truth and facts are, as the POMOs have it, problematic. And she will not be distracted by “seeking one key truth” but will instead “shift to a minimum variable truth”, which looks a lot like a lowest common denominator truth, or a good-enough-for-government-work kind of truth.
Make no mistake, though. She knows what her and NPR’s ends are, whether they have to do with climate change, DEI, affirmative action, or any of the other left hobby horses. The talk about consensus is really only about the means of implementing the agenda. Her goal seems to be this: How do we have a conversation(!) in which we control the premises? The world beyond our premises is ….. what is the word for lies she is looking for? ….oh, yes …. disinformation.
At the end of Mary Harrington’s essay, she states that “The Right might not like [ Maher’s ] solution, but she is at least thinking about the problem.” But Harrington just spent 1000 words or so telling us that Maher Is the problem she now says Maher is thinking about.
In a previous essay ( Why the centrists changed their trans tune ), Harrington quotes Ruth Hunt of Stonewall as saying she “has always been working in the middle ground, trying to build consensus.” Exactly. Just like Maher. “Consulting widely and inclusively” with the consensus of the unhinged.
By the way, I think Jane Austen ( if I may be so bold ) would have smiled at Harrington’s over-analyzed and over-determined take on her famous, slyly wry, quotation. Austen could have written “It is as plain as the nose on your face that a single man must be in want of a wife.” and the sense would have been the same. But she didn’t. Because she was Jane Austen.

Duane M
Duane M
26 days ago

Mary Harrington is a Western philosopher, so everything has to be over-analyzed and then expressed in abstracted terms. Her heart is very much in the right place, but the philosophy training makes it hard for her to write in plain English.

Betsy Warrior
Betsy Warrior
23 days ago

Cut the B.S. We all know that the corporate media is beholden to the CORPORATIONS who hold the purse-strings, that is, people like Jeff Bozos, the Saltzburgs, Mark Zuckerberg, Hearst s, the Scaifes, Disney, Comcast, Time Warner and their heirs et al. Jimmy Wales and Larry Singer started Wikipedia as a soft porn website. Israel has a roving fleet of Wikipedia editors who constantly monitor Wiki to strip it of anything negative about Israel and replace it with Israeli propaganda.
Poster/editors on Wikipedia are 97% male, whether white or black, whose biases and omissions attest to their hatred of women. While people pretending to be indignantly championing the truth are championing only their own petty biases .