Organization Trends

The Institutional Revolution at National Public Radio


Last week, longtime National Public Radio editor Uri Berliner wrote an op-ed on his recent experiences at the media company for the Free Press, the Substack-based media outlet led by former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss. Berliner’s article, which we discussed recently as part of an InfluenceWatch Podcast episode on nonprofits and the news, traced NPR’s ideological transformation (in Berliner’s view) from left-leaning to vanguardist woke-progressive.

But while Berliner pointed out the roles of events, his colleagues, and even his own labor union in NPR’s woke shift, missing was an eye toward the “third sector” donor institutions that may have encouraged it. NPR is heavily funded by Big Philanthropy and its own endowment. As those institutions are part of the woke vanguard, NPR is likelier to follow the Everything Leftism of its new CEO Katherine Maher than Berliner’s traditional American liberalism.

The Prosecution’s Brief

The evidence Berliner marshalled for his thesis is compelling. Coverage flopped in a liberal-favoring manner, as NPR over-relied on partisan Democrats for sourcing its coverage of the investigation into alleged ties between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government, sided with the broad hive-mind censorship of New York Post reporting on a laptop alleged to belong to Hunter Biden in the closing days of the 2020 presidential election, and rejected even the possibility of a laboratory origin for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former NPR CEO John Lansing reacted to the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd in police custody by making diversity NPR’s “North Star”—diversity as understood by the left-progressive “DEI” movement. NPR journalists were ordered to track the race, gender, and ethnicity of anyone they interviewed for stories in a database. The NPR journalists’ union, a unit of the actors’ and radio personalities’ union SAG-AFTRA, inserted a DEI provision into the contract requiring NPR management to “keep up to date with current language and style guidance from journalism affinity groups.”

These left-wing vanguardist practices neither increased NPR’s audience diversity nor increased its numbers, according to Berliner. But at least NPR has a new CEO in Katherine Maher, the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation who received $409,005 in compensation in the last full fiscal year she worked for Wikipedia’s parent corporation.

Everything Leftism on Ludicrous Mode

If one is willing to pay Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors a large sum of money, one can procure a Tesla vehicle with “Ludicrous Mode.” This setting gives the driver the ability to yeet himself and any passengers from a standing start to 60 miles per hour at acceleration rates once reserved for race-car drivers in an otherwise sensible luxury car using the torque of electric motors. As conservative activists, most prominently the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, learned of Maher from Berliner’s writing, they discovered that Maher’s posts on Musk’s social media property revealed that the nonprofit executive apparently adheres to Everything Leftism on Ludicrous Mode.

War on cars? Yes, the new CEO of the federally funded institution that once promoted the car-maintenance show Car Talk with Tom and Ray Magliozzi (known to listeners as “Click and Clack”) wrote in 2015 that “Driving will be the new smoking. Our children will be all smh [shaking my head].”

Identity politics? In 2016, Maher (then making just over $300,000 in her role at Wikimedia) complained that “Airline business class demographics are such a pet peeve of mine. In the lounge and on the plane, usually > 80% male, usually white.”

Esoteric views on “privilege” inspired by critical race and gender theories? Maher wrote in mid-2020: “Lots of jokes about leaving the US, and I get it. But as someone with cis white mobility privilege, I’m thinking I’m staying and investing in ridding ourselves of this spectre [sic] of tyranny.”

That is only the cream of Rufo’s selections from Maher’s Everything Leftist oeuvre, which is extensive and goes well beyond mere allegations that “Donald Trump is a racist” that were highlighted in a New York Times sub-headline. If one did not know any better, one might suspect the Times headline writer was attempting to signal its liberal readership to come to Maher’s defense with its selection.

Enter Big Philanthropy

Everyone knows NPR’s audience is pretty liberal and from the Super-ZIP dwelling, affluent, urban, mostly white end of the liberal coalition. According to Uri Berliner, 67 percent of NPR listeners in 2023 “said they were very or somewhat liberal” and the proportions of Hispanic and Black listeners were below their shares of the general population. By extension the Hispanic and Black proportions were even further below their shares of the liberal-Democratic voter base, which is more non-white than the conservative-Republican one.

The question is why: Why is National Public Radio drifting to such a radical corner of the left-wing coalition that is not representative even of most liberals? Consider that Democrats drive, too. Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk fame was a donor to the Democratic National Committee and critic of then-President George W. Bush during his life.

One might look to one of NPR’s sources of funding: Big Philanthropy. First, NPR itself is part of Big Philanthropy. The affiliated NPR Foundation serves as a supporting organization for NPR and manages its endowment fund, effectively making the NPR groups a major grantmaker with $368 million in assets. In 2022, the Foundation contributed almost $17 million to NPR, its lone declared grantee.

Outside Big Philanthropy also contributes substantially to NPR. In 2022, the Gates Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation all contributed more than $1 million to the institution. The Carnegie Corporation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Doris Duke Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Joyce Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Public Welfare Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Skoll Foundation, American Jewish World Service, and Pew Charitable Trusts each added six-figure grants.

Where NPR Goes

The intensive funding from Everything Leftist institutions might explain why NPR leadership felt compelled or inclined to follow the vanguard of woke progressivism on identity-politics issues and the presidency of Donald Trump. That alignment speaks to the plausible fates of Berliner and Maher at NPR. Berliner’s liberalism (in his piece, he writes that he voted against Donald Trump twice) moderated by journalistic professionalism is not what Everything Leftist program officers and nonprofit board members want to fund.

Instead, they fund left-wing hobbyhorses. The MacArthur Foundation’s tax return for 2022 detailed that its gift to NPR is for “support of NPR’s Race and Identity beat and [the] Podcasts: Code Switch and Throughline,” which cover racial dynamics and history from a leftist perspective, respectively. The Rockefeller Foundation’s contribution was targeted for “building reporting capacity” for energy and environmental news with a focus on climate change, a focus of Rockefeller’s work.

With major donors focused on specific left-wing interest reporting and internal institutional pressures from the newsroom to the union negotiating committee committed to Everything Leftism, is there a place for Berliner’s old-fashioned liberalism-modified-by-professionalism? Early returns don’t look good; Berliner received a five-day suspension without pay for his Free Press article. He later resigned, writing, “I cannot work in a newsroom where I am disparaged by a new CEO whose divisive views confirm the very problems at NPR I cite in my Free Press essay.”

And just as not good is the likelihood that there will remain a place for Katherine Maher’s Everything Leftism in Ludicrous Mode. Which compels one to ask, if cars are forbidden, where will people listen to National Public Radio?

Michael Watson

Michael is Research Director for Capital Research Center and serves as the managing editor for InfluenceWatch. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, he previously worked for a…
+ More by Michael Watson