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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Impacts on Political Representation

NPR's Uri Berliner published an article calling into question some of NPR's reporting. In it, he says he fears NPR over-valued diversity in staffing, resulting in programming that alienates conservative listeners. For this month's Philosophical Currents, we talk with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein about DEI, and the many layers of language.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's get into this article by Yuri Berliner where he starts talking about how he thinks that NPR lost the country's trust. What would be a sort of philosophical or your philosophical reaction to the article?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, my first reaction was that it feels really inside baseball. It feels like academic philosophy at its worst, which is a very narrow discussion between a very small group of people who think that their point of view is the most important in the world and no one else is paying attention. And so I really, I imagined in many respects the NPR office being very upset, but the office next door having no idea that the article came out.

The second thing that I thought was how rich of a conversation it could lead to because I think it's full of such superficial descriptions of the problem that every paragraph could inspire a whole new essay because there is a real problem right now. And the real problem is that explanations have been labeled as liberal. When someone says, you know, oh, what you're saying isn't really true.

It's complicated. Let me tell you why. And you have to give a paragraph or two paragraphs or three paragraphs.

People dismiss that as liberal, whereas people think soundbites and stories that you can summarize in one sentence, that's by definition centrist or even conservative. And so anytime any news organization wants to elaborate on the details behind the stories, they're already going to be pigeonholed as liberal.

Ashley Thornberg

Who do you think is the intended audience then if you're calling this inside baseball?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

I had two reactions. There's the cynical reaction and then there's the more muted reaction. The cynical reaction was to me it felt like an audition tape.

It felt like he was looking for another job. He thought there's more money in right-wing media. And so he's going to write an article that says, I'm one of you.

I look like I'm one of them, but I'm one of you. Please consider me for your position. Now, I can't say with any evidence that that's true.

That's just how it felt to me. The second part of me, the rhetorician in me, the person who's concerned with language, was really puzzled by the audience because on the one hand, he is allegedly trying to persuade people that NPR has gone awry, but he's doing it by using a bunch of old arguments that as a general rule, at least 60-70% of the United States has dismissed. And so he's playing with words and that leads back to that first cynical point of view that he's auditioning for something because the language that he uses and the arguments that he uses, he discusses it as if it's completely self-evident, as of course we know this to be true.

NPR said this, but everybody knows that the opposite is the case. And nothing that he said that seemed obvious was obvious at all. And in fact, I found most of it to be factually incorrect.

Ashley Thornberg

Give us an example.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

So he says at one point that NPR covers the Mueller report, but didn't cover the fact that there was no collusion and that then NPR went silent. But of course, the implication of that is that there were no crimes at all. The Mueller report did find that there was no collusion because collusion is not a crime.

Collusion is a generic term for a lot of different things. What they did find was conspiracy, aiding and abetting. The investigation resulted in 37 indictments, seven guilty pleas or convictions, and compelling evidence that many people, including Donald Trump, obstructed justice.

Ashley Thornberg

We're visiting today with Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Dakota. We're having a discussion today about a recent op-ed written by a now former senior editor at NPR, Uri Berliner. I'm going to have a hard time formulating this question here, but a lot of what he talks about is DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion.

And he says that in the quest for more diversity, equity and inclusion, NPR has lost its way in covering in particular conservative issues. I wonder if that makes the opposite argument true, that if organizations that don't include DEI, are they guilty of the opposite?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

Well, let's do this in stages because this is the current debate right now, and DEI has become a code word for lots of different things. And if you looked at the Internet after the barge hit the Baltimore Bridge and the bridge collapsed, there were tons and tons of very offensive tweets that say things like, oh, the captain, the ship captain must have been DEI, right? And what DEI has become code for is what affirmative action used to be code for, which is, well, you get less qualified people in a job because we only want them for their color of their skin.

So I want to take this in stages. The first is, what does he mean by DEI? What he means by DEI is making a concerted effort to hire people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, national origins and perspectives.

The only way to be against that fairly is to say, well, we don't want black people. We don't want brown people. We don't want gay people.

We don't want anyone who doesn't look like us, whoever us is, in the newsroom. That's what being against DEI means. It is in favor of a homogeneous organization that doesn't represent the world around them.

Now, there's a second problem. And the second problem is, take a state like North Dakota, which has a 5% Native American population. Among that 5% Native population, there is less access to good quality schools, less access to medical care, less access to journalism departments, less access to lots of different things for a variety of reasons.

That means that out of the pool of a thousand applicants for any journalism job, let's say five are going to be Native American. Isn't it important that in North Dakota we hear some Native American voices? Isn't it important that because 5% of the population is Native American and because a very significant percent of that population was born and raised on the reservation, isn't it important that any news organization has a voice that can share the perspective and get news stories that non-Natives can't get?

Maybe people will talk to the Native journalist, but they wouldn't talk to a Caucasian journalist. Maybe the Native journalist understands the subtleties of language and body movement and the taboos better than a non-Native journalist. And so all DEI is saying in that respect is, look, it's North Dakota.

We need to make sure that we have someone of Native American origin on the staff. That's what he's objecting to. He's objecting to the intentional search for someone who represents what we now call marginalized positions.

And it's so easy for those voices to get lost because you're looking at a hundred different applications. And if those five applications tend to be at the end, you're too tired to notice them anyway. So that's what he's arguing against.

He's arguing against the idea that journalism needs to come from diverse perspectives because when we want to understand the various different stories from around the world, we have to at least have somewhat of an insider's point of view. And that insider's point of view makes us a better organization. He says, no, it doesn't.

Stop looking for diverse points of view. Keep things, he doesn't say what, so I'll say, keep things homogeneous. Everyone should look sound and act exactly the same from the same background.

Don't try to change that.

Ashley Thornberg

Is he saying that or is he saying, I'm concerned that there has been a focus on this at the expense of the news coverage?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

You know, I'm concerned, Ashley, that you're a puppy killer. And I'm not accusing you. I'm just asking you questions, right?

What, you know, how come there are never puppies around you? I see puppies around other people. How come you never talk about dogs?

Are you a puppy killer? Now, I'm not accusing you. I'm just concerned, right?

The language that we use has multiple layers. There's the literal aspect and then there's the implied aspect. There's the stuff that's up front and then there's the message that we are really bringing across.

Now, everyone who's listening is wondering whether you're a puppy killer, even though I didn't accuse you of anything, right? And so when he says, I'm concerned about DEI, I'm concerned that DEI is going to make NPR a lesser organization, what he's ultimately saying is DEI is going to make NPR a lesser organization. And the proper response to that is to ask why.

Why is DEI going to make your organization less? What does diverse perspectives bring that NPR loses by having those voices? That's the question that I want to hear him answer.

If he were right now, I would say, OK, explain to me why having Native American voices in North Dakota makes Prairie Public a less reliable, less professional, less talented organization. What is it about including Native Americans that takes that away? That's the question I want him to answer.

Ashley Thornberg

Jack, in talking about representation and this whole idea of change and of reactions to change, in St. Paul, Minnesota earlier this year, they swore in an all-female city council for the first time in the city's history. And not all of the women on the city council are white. And I'm going to read a quote here from the city council president that said, Let's just say a whole lot of people who are comfortable with majority male, majority white institutions for 170 years of city history are suddenly sharply concerned about representation.

My thoughts and prayers are with them in this challenging time. I want to talk to you about that idea of these institutions. So many institutions were majority male and majority white for a really long time.

And as things are changing, like this is when you start to hear people getting upset. I mean, I guess I kind of want to ask an obvious but seemingly difficult question to answer about why do we get that upset about change to begin with?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein

You know, it's funny, you went a completely different way than I thought you were going. Because the quote that you read is a really good example of the difference between what's being stated and what's actually being said. Because what's being stated is there are a lot of people who didn't care about diversity and now they care about diversity.

And I hope they learn to live with this. But what's really being said is you always you never minded when it was all men. Now it's all women.

Bite me. Right. That's what that's what hope and prayers has come to mean.

It means I don't care. I'm not going to I'm not going to act a certain way so you can bite me. And there is a certain perspective in which I understand that that response, because when when an all male city councils dismissed the concerns that there weren't women on them, it was very easy for many women to feel insulted and alienated and ignored and invisible.

And so now it's the side is flipped. And the one thing that we have seen over and over again in history is that. No matter how much you claim you have the moral high ground when you're not in power, when you're in power, you become a jerk and you take advantage of it over and over and over again, there has never been a group that hasn't exploited being in power.

Now, what you actually asked was an interesting and different question, which is, why are we so unhappy or so afraid of change? And that, I think, is actually really at the core of some of these questions. If you go back last year or a while ago, you and I had a conversation about the difference between what does it mean to be liberal and what does it mean to be conservative?

And the short version that I offered was that to be a liberal is to is to think that all else being equal change is good, that we want that liberals want incremental change step by step because the future is going to be better. Conservatives want things to stay the same. A reactionary who's farther to the right than a conservative wants things to go back in time.

So just as an aside, the article we were talking about, the Berliner article, is textbook reactionary because what he is saying is there was a time when NPR was glorious and now it's not and we should go back to it. That's textbook reactionary. But most people, when they have what they want, end up being conservative because if things change, you're worried that you're going to lose stuff.

If you finally have the house of your dreams and the St. Paul City Council changes zoning, all of a sudden you might be next to the landfill and that'll be horrible. Or if you have a city council member who you are really close to and who takes your advice, you don't want them to change because the new person might not give you the time of day. Being a human being means living in an unpredictable world.

And the thing that is the scariest to every human being is that what is coming around the corner is something that we can't handle and we can't control. And so that's why the status quo is almost always the thing that people will defend because keeping things the way they are means less turmoil unless how things are is disastrous. And this, I think, is why poor and marginalized people tend to be liberal and non-marginalized people tend to be conservative.

Because if your today is horrible, you have to have faith that the future is going to progress to something better. So you adopt that perspective of someone who says, yes, please change, it's going to get better. But if what you have is either good enough or great, then you don't want a future of change.

You want things to be static so you can predict and so you can preserve. And so a question that is really important to this discussion, independent of whether anyone read the article or not, is what is the role of journalism in addressing the desires for change or the desires for stability? How much do we expect our journalists to play an active role in either making the world a better place or keeping the world as it is?

He wrote a superficial article that he knew was going to be dismissed completely out of hand by the NPR folks. And he wrote a simplistic article that he knew that the Fox and Free Press folks were going to eat it up and use it as evidence that they're right. If he really wanted to change things, then he's an editor.

He has an inside voice. He could make those changes, and he could have written a really good, really interesting, really sophisticated article about the fact that what NPR—and he alluded to this at one point in one paragraph—that what NPR is doing is diffusing its perspective. So each particular show that is now broadcast is one perspective, and the only way to get balance is to listen to all of them.

He could have certainly made that argument, but he chose not to because he wasn't writing for the reader. He was writing for his employer and for his future employer. That's the ultimate problem with that article.

He wasn't writing for the reader. He was writing for people who were going to hire him in the future.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.