Inside NPR, New Editing Layer Adds Angst Among Employees

One of NPR’s most prominent hosts asked the company’s top editor on Thursday to disclose the identity of an anonymous funder who is helping pay for a new layer of editing several weeks after the radio network faced a prominent accusation of having a liberal bias in its coverage.

Michel Martin, a host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” pressed Edith Chapin, NPR’s chief content officer, to identify the source of the funding in an editorial meeting at the network’s Washington headquarters, according to four people with knowledge of the exchange.

Ms. Chapin declined to elaborate on the source of the money but said that it wouldn’t be a surprise to NPR’s editorial staff. Ms. Martin replied she would not accept that answer from a source, the people said.

The meeting was held to discuss the new layer of editing, called the Backstop, that was announced to the full staff on Wednesday. The group, to be made up of six senior editors, will review all of NPR’s journalism before it is released.

In recent weeks, NPR has been dealing with the fallout from an essay published in The Free Press by Uri Berliner, then a senior editor at NPR, who argued that the network had allowed progressive politics to skew its journalism. Much of the staff has pushed back against his accusations, calling them factually inaccurate, but conservative critics have latched onto his argument and Republican members of Congress have asked NPR’s chief executive to testify on accusations of bias.

The announcement of the new initiative angered many NPR employees, who see the Backstop as an unnecessary bottleneck that will bog down the nonprofit’s reporting with a redundant layer of editing. Others have expressed concern that it could be viewed as a defensive response to Mr. Berliner’s essay — a premise that Ms. Chapin has rejected in conversations with employees.

NPR declined to comment beyond Ms. Chapin’s note to employees. The note called the new changes — including periodic staff reviews of NPR’s ethics handbook — to ensure “that all our work meets the highest standards.” The initiative will also include an expansion of NPR’s standards and practices team, off-the-record editorial briefings with newsmakers and a content analysis of NPR’s journalism.

In a smaller staff meeting earlier in the week, Ms. Chapin said that the initiative was supported by Katherine Maher, the company’s chief executive, NPR’s board of directors and external funders, according to a person familiar with the exchange. She did not specify the source or amount of external financing, adding that she could not provide more specifics until the funding agreement was finalized.

When Ms. Chapin was asked in the meeting about how she would separate the decision to add a new editing layer from Mr. Berliner’s critique, she said that it was about journalism and that she felt lucky to get the additional resources.

“We ought to view that as a good thing,” Ms. Chapin said. “We’re not playing defense and having things imposed upon us that make zero sense and are put upon us by people who know less than zero about journalism.”

Another point of contention among NPR employees is the move to add a panel of editors less than a year after the company laid off roughly 10 percent of its staff.

But some NPR employees defended the decision to hire the editors. Eric Marrapodi, NPR’s vice president for news programming, said during the meeting that the new group of editors would be helpful for accuracy for the whole division, though he would have put the new resources to use in a different way if he was spending them on his own teams only.

“If it were up to just me on the shows and the 160 people who work for me, I would have spent this money differently, but this is about the entire content division and what’s best for all of us,” Mr. Marrapodi said.

Other news organizations have similar processes. CNN has a system called the Triad, a three-pronged internal review that includes close legal scrutiny.

Ms. Chapin said during the meeting that she would never allow a donor to dictate editorial terms. She has called the group a “new story sign-off process” that creates “a formal system to ensure that all of NPR’s content gets a final editorial review.” According to documents reviewed by The New York Times, the group will report to her.

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