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.