NPR CEO Katherine Maher Congress testimony
NPR CEO Katherine Maher in November 2023 before she went into hiding. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images)

NPR CEO Hides from Congress

Rather than answer questions in person about bias at the network, Katherine Maher submitted written remarks that sound ‘like a pledge drive.’

Where the heck is Katherine Maher?

The NPR CEO has not made a single public appearance since April 9, when The Free Press published a bombshell exposé by Uri Berliner, a 25-year veteran at the network, alleging ideological bias at the institution.

Even today, when Maher was summoned by Congress to give testimony about whether NPR’s news reporting was “fair and objective,” she was a no-show. 

Her excuse? The night before the hearing, she announced she could not attend because of. . . a previously scheduled board meeting.

Instead, Maher submitted written testimony drafted in the prose style of brand management consultants. According to Maher, NPR is “bringing trusted, reliable, independent news and information of the highest editorial standards” to tens of millions of listeners. 

Meanwhile, four witnesses from media and political think tanks gave two hours of testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about how federal money is shared between NPR and local public radio affiliates, among other issues. 

Berliner had sounded the alarm internally at NPR for years over the public’s loss of trust in the network before coming forward with his story in The Free Press. He wrote that “an open-minded spirit no longer exists within NPR, and now, predictably, we don’t have an audience that reflects America. That wouldn’t be a problem for an openly polemical news outlet serving a niche audience,” he continued, “but for NPR, which purports to consider all things, it’s devastating both for its journalism and its business model.” A New York Times investigation later showed that NPR’s weekly audience has dropped from an estimated 60 million in 2020 to about 42 million today.

Berliner’s story quickly went viral, especially after biased tweets Maher had posted before she became NPR’s CEO last January started to emerge. In 2016, she urged Hillary Clinton not to say “boys and girls” because “it’s erasing language for non-binary people.” In 2018, she tweeted “Donald Trump is a racist.” And in 2021, she appeared on a panel at the Atlantic Council where she claimed the First Amendment was the “number one challenge” in the fight against disinformation.

Maher struck a different chord in her written testimony today, invoking the First Amendment ten times. She gushed about “the Constitution’s promise of a free and independent press,” and claimed she would never interfere in her journalists’ news gathering. Indeed, one aspect of her job, she wrote—in a veiled barb at the Republicans on the committee—was to “prevent undue influence or intrusion from anyone into the editorial decisions of news leadership.”

Now Berliner, who has since resigned from the network, is questioning whether Maher is the best person to lead NPR. 

“Why isn’t she there? Is she the right person for the job at this time?” he asked, adding that her written statement “sounds like a pledge drive.” 

Berliner also called BS on Maher’s claim that she doesn’t interfere in NPR’s editorial content. “She said she was on the other side of the firewall that separates the newsroom from the CEO,” he told The Free Press in a phone interview. “However, when my story came out, after I had already been suspended for five days without pay, she told editorial staffers in a public statement on the NPR website they had been hurt, demeaned, and disrespected by what I wrote. That’s knocking down the firewall right there.” 

He added, “She doesn’t address how NPR’s audience has shifted dramatically over time, from roughly reflecting America to a much narrower progressive slice of the country.” 

Maher’s no-show clearly frustrated Republican members of the committee. Its chair, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), said, “It is especially troubling that an organization funded with taxpayer dollars has mocked, ridiculed, and attacked the very people who fund their organization.”

Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee defended Maher and criticized her accusers. Ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) called Berliner a “disgruntled former employee,” and questioned if his Republican committee members “were truly concerned about journalism,” given their lack of scrutiny toward right-wing media organizations with a “long history of peddling misinformation, disinformation, promoting partisan agendas, and sowing fear and division.” 

And Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) said, “Foreign adversaries like the Chinese Communist Party, Russia’s Putin, or Iran’s violent theocrats certainly enjoy it when American politicians undermine our own objective journalists. This committee should not do their dirty work for them.” 

But while Berliner does not advocate the defunding of NPR, he is sticking to his argument that the network must reform in order to survive. “NPR needs real leadership now,” he said. “The board will need to decide whether Katherine Maher is the right person for the job.”

Eli Lake is a writer and podcaster for The Free Press. Read his piece “Who Is in Charge at The New York Times?” and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @EliLake.

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