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What is truth? A journalist asks Pilate’s question

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 19, 2024

“What is truth?” That cynical question, memorably posed by Pontius Pilate, is enjoying new currency today, thanks to public statements by Katherine Maher, the newly installed head of National Public Radio (NPR).

”We all have different truths,” Maher told a TED talk audience, explaining that there are “many different truths.” So she is not worried by the fact that, as she sees it, NPR reporters “are not focused on the truth.”

They’re focused on something else, which is the best of what we can know right now. …. Perhaps, for our most tricky disagreements, seeking the truth, and seeking to convince others of the truth, might not be the right place to start. In fact, a reverence for the truth might be a distraction that’s getting in the way of finding common ground and getting things done.

By “getting things done,” Maher means giving people good information, and protecting them from bad information. At NPR, as at her previous post with Wikipedia, she is determined to suppress misinformation. And in that quest, she says, “the number-one challenge here that we see is, of course, the First Amendment in the United States.”

Of course. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and thereby protects the rights of people who express unpopular opinions. That protection does not sit well with Maher, who wants to suppress certain opinions. You know, bad opinions.

Maher’s own opinions have been well documented, thanks to her busy Twitter account. In a critical assessment for City Journal, Christopher Rufo writes: “On every topic, Maher adopts the fashionable language of left-wing academic theory and uses it as social currency, even when her efforts veer into self-parody.”

When questioned as to whether NPR programming might be influenced by the political slant of reporters who share her fashionably leftist views, Maher assures us that any such bias is impossible, because the people at NPR, she tells us, are curious, and want to know what people think. And yet, curiously, when a former NPR executive accused the network of flagrant political bias, she… fired him. That is curious.

Maher also insists that NPR solicits and conveys the thoughts of people from every demographic and ideological group in American society. That claim is—how shall I say this politely—her truth. It does not correspond with my truth: with the evidence that I glean from occasionally listening to NPR’s spectacularly one-sided programming. But again that is my truth, not her truth, and we all have different truths, so…

Where are we? Do you, like me, feel the need at this point to wash your hands?

Up until recently every respectable journalist at least claimed that his goal was to convey the truth. And every respectable American journalist paid tribute to the freedoms promised by the First Amendment. Now the CEO of a major broadcasting network—a network supported by the American taxpayers—has cast aside both of these venerable commitments, in favor of “getting things done.”

Years ago I adopted a simple standard for judging political promises: When a public figure tells you something that you want to hear, question his sincerity. When a public figure tells you something you don’t want to hear, believe him. When Katherine Maher says that NPR will not be committed to the truth, believe her. You have been forewarned.

Now ask yourself: Why would anyone rely on a journalistic outlet that was not committed to conveying the truth? Would you read the sports pages, if they did not reliably carry the scores from last night’s games? Would you bother with the weather report, if the forecaster decided that he never wanted to tell you that it was going to rain?

Katherine Maher is telling the American people that they cannot trust NPR. Believe her.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Apr. 21, 2024 6:19 PM ET USA

    Mr. Lawler this is a very timely column since it’s not just NPR and Fearless Leader Maher (apologies to Jay Ward) who have adopted this position. The NYT journalist, Jim Rutenberg, declared he had to take an activist stance in 2016. The whole NYT staff followed him! Of course, Maher’s blatant defense of charlatanism in a major organization which used to report news makes a further step towards deceiving the American public. But that’s why main stream news is at it’s lowest trust level ever!

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Apr. 20, 2024 8:25 AM ET USA

    Logic clearly escapes this person. But, in regard to her bio, and forgive me if it is splitting hairs, she was the CEO and executive director of Wikimedia not Wikipedia. Truth?

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Apr. 20, 2024 1:02 AM ET USA

    I also believe her.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 19, 2024 5:41 PM ET USA

    I used to tune my radio alarm clock to NPR and place it further away from the bed. As soon as heard NPR's Soviet-style propaganda I had to get out of bed and quickly turn it off. With NPR there was never a risk of snoozing or sleeping in.