Berliner Goes Tabloid

Considering the tale of the longtime NPR editor who decided to pull a Bulworth at the tail end of his long career.

By Ernie Smith

Today, I came up with a niche joke, extremely niche. But it is extremely fitting given the situation surrounding NPR right now.

“I see Uri Berliner has decided to change his format to Uri Tabloid,” I wrote.

This is a joke that, as a onetime newspaper designer, is extremely funny to me. See, “Berliner” is a newspaper format that can be described as halfway between a broadsheet and a tabloid newspaper. It has a fold, but it is designed to be compact while still having room to breathe. It is used for high-end European newspapers, often with worldly reputations, the most famous of which to Americans is probably The Guardian.

Tabloid is just a size of newspaper, but it is designed to be picked up by people at local stores—think The New York Post. It has gained a reputation as being downmarket, all-flash-no-substance, that plays to emotion rather than to accuracy. That’s not totally true, but it’s the terminology that sticks with folks.

By deciding to take aim at his now-former employer in a controversial publication for pure political gamesmanship reasons, a man named Berliner, who had a very Berliner kind of job working as a business editor at NPR, just did a tabloid thing. He didn’t talk to his employer ahead of time before he wrote an essay accusing them of a long history of liberal bias, and he just kind of did it, while throwing caution to the wind. He got suspended, then he quit. The only thing that could make my joke funnier, in my mind, is if Berliner had worked at a broadsheet.

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Now, I’m sure some will see this as a man inside the fox-hole exposing the political persuasions of public radio, which makes sense, as that’s what it’s designed to do. But the truth of the matter is, it is the work of a man late in his career (an employee of NPR since the 1999, he’s nearly 70) who honestly doesn’t have that much to lose from speaking out now.

Simply put, Uri Berliner is pulling a Bulworth, whether he realizes it or not. The 1998 Warren Beatty film, if you’re not familiar, is about a politician who, sick of his life wrapped up in lobbyists, glad-handing, and playing by the rules of Washington, decides to have a hit put out on himself, which has the accidental side effect of making him speak honestly after a career of holding his tongue. (Relatedly, he also embraces hip-hop culture.) It’s Beatty’s last truly great film outside of those weird Turner Classic Movies appearances he makes to hold onto the Dick Tracy IP, and it’s worth watching. Some have even noted that it correctly predicted our modern political era—and based on what is happening at NPR, it’s hard to disagree. The one difference, honestly, is that Uri Berliner is finding that his newfound candor is not winning him universal praise, but is simply making him a more divisive figure.

The thing is, Berliner’s comments, regardless of whether they’re actually true or even matter, verify a mindset that has crept into some corners of American politics—that diversity is ruining everything, that everything has sides, and that using editorial judgment in a way that does not benefit my political interests is somehow bad. Senator Jay Billington Bulworth, no longer worried about what would happen next, saw his opportunity to burn down the culture that he had grown to abhor, and it won him a new set of allies at the cost of the ones tied to the establishment. Uri Berliner is doing the same, though for different political goals.

The problem is, there is an industry full of people who are ready to take advantage of a situation like this, to exploit the things to tear us apart on the way to setting deeper goals. Uri Berliner is an excellent weapon in the culture war, and he’s going to get put to good use.

Simply put, Berliner gets to live his self-inflicted retirement in the tabloid format.

MKBHD, Redux

I already wrote my piece about MKBHD’s role as a reviewer when I covered his Fisker review about a month ago, but I wanted to give a shout to Marques for his handling of a very similar controversy around the Humane AI Pin, which was questionable to start but raised massive furrowed eyebrows after a single influential user decided to call MKBHD out for his negative review. (I wrote about the Humane AI Pin back in November.)

If there is a close comparison point to what MKBHD did, it is the 2004 Pitchfork review for Travistan, which basically kicked the legs out of the budding solo career of Travis Morrison, the frontman of The Dismemberment Plan. To some degree, Pitchfork had to course-correct to make sure it wasn’t punching down with its reviews and destroying careers just with a block of text. As fun as an overly negative review of something artistic is, there is a limit to how much it benefits the consumer to trash it. At most, you’re out $20 if you buy a dud of an album.

But in the case of MKBHD, he is serving consumers who are spending lots of money on expensive gadgets and need to be informed so they aren’t wasting their money. A $700 lapel pin with a $24 monthly charge is a different ballpark. At some point, it doesn’t matter how influential he is; his value, and any reviewer’s, as a customer service simply outshines what happens to the company in the end.

MKBHD gets the dynamic, as he explained in a follow-up yesterday, and he’s not changing his approach. He shouldn’t. We all benefit from that.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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