Greenwich Time (Sunday)

NPR static has roots in Conn.

Call it woke. Call it DEI. I call it empathy.

- JOHN BREUNIG John Breunig is editorial page editor. jbreunig@hearstmedi­act.com; twitter.com/johnbreuni­g.

Katherine Maher has been CEO of National Public Radio for less than a month and has already been branded with adjectives typically reserved for a candidate seeking the nation’s highest office.

“Katherine Maher is a Drone,” the National Review declared.

“One of the worst human beings in America,” Elon Musk posted on his Platform of Many Names.

“Her life is the ultimate woke-elite bingo card,” the New York Post cried.

I don’t know Katherine Maher. Had Uri Berliner not written his screed about his (now former) employer for the Free Press, most of us couldn’t have correctly answered “Who is Katherine Maher?” for a cool grand on “Jeopardy!”, let alone been able to play bingo with her resume. Berliner accused NPR of becoming increasing­ly progressiv­e in his essay. The nonprofit suspended him without pay for five days, noting that he neglected to get permission to do outside work. He subsequent­ly quit, writing in his resignatio­n letter than his new boss had “disparaged” him.

Yet I feel a little dense about this. I was talking to a co-worker Tuesday about how diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues can inspire some readers and trigger others. He pointed to the NPR scandal. I mentioned blowback to a recent op-ed we published under the headline “Let LGBTQ+ people be themselves.”

After the call, I started reading an article my colleague sent me about NPR. It was the first time I’d seen a photo of Maher. The face looked familiar. It was only then that I connected the dots to her mother, who had written the LGBTQ piece.

State Sen. Ceci Maher’s 26th district consists of Wilton, Weston, Westport, Redding and parts of Ridgefield, New Canaan and Darien. It was in that first “W” that she raised Katherine, who has shared that her love of NPR was shaped by her parents reliably tuning into it while driving her to and from school (I eagerly await the Post headline “Brainwashe­d by NPR since birth!”).

I’ve known Ceci Maher for about 20 years. We met while I was city editor at the Stamford Advocate and she was CEO of Person-to-Person in Darien, when we worked together to frame that year’s Giving Fund, which raises money for residents in need during the holiday season.

I don’t know Ceci well (she declined to be interviewe­d for this column). But I know her well enough to remember that while I was dropping off donations at Person-toPerson in 2012, she took my infant son from my arms for a spell. Five years ago, I wrote a column in which she talked about P2P’s core mission: “Kids can’t go to school hungry. They can’t play sports hungry. They can’t learn hungry.”

She retired from P2P in 2019, only to be drafted back into the nonprofit sector as interim director of Sandy Hook Promise, which was inspired by the 2012 tragedy in Newtown and focuses on gun violence prevention programs.

In 2022, I called her a few weeks after she was elected, but before she had taken office. I wanted to get her take on Darien’s decision not to let Pride flags be flown on town property, just months after the town’s first rainbow rally drew more than 600 supporters.

“Darien took a step forward and now is taking a step back,” Maher said.

Poverty. Gun safety. LGBTQ issues. You’re probably sensing a theme.

Sen. Maher’s bills this session focus on issues such as climate change, school nutrition, sexual assault, tax exemptions for veterans, consumer protection, domestic violence, housing and drug affordabil­ity.

That could fill a week of NPR programmin­g. Call it woke. Call it DEI. I call it empathy.

Her daughter’s nonprofit leadership background speaks to a similar ethos.

Anyone surprised that NPR leans left wasn’t listening. Some Republican lawmakers are seizing the controvers­y as an opportunit­y to try to defund NPR.

That rang familiar to me as well. Back in 1992, I interviewe­d then-WNETTV President William Baker (who still resides in Greenwich) about funding issues. That polarizing word “diversity” was in the lede of my news feature (among other things, Baker is credited with introducin­g TV viewers to Oprah Winfrey).

Thirty-two years ago, Baker’s already packed workdays were stretched from 8 a.m. to midnight due to the demands of fund drives. Republican senators were trying to pump the brakes on federal funding for the Corporatio­n for Public Broadcasti­ng (CPB). Senators Bob Dole, John McCain and Jesse Helms objected to a perceived left-wing bias on PBS and essentiall­y argued that Big Bird was pulling in enough coin on merchandis­ing to make federal funding unnecessar­y.

“I don’t like being a national football kicked all over the place,” Baker said at the time.

Moves were afoot at the time to turn CPB — a private nonprofit authorized by Congress in 1967 — into a public operation.

“I don’t think it benefits the American people to have a public appointmen­t running the entity,” Baker told me. “In dictatorsh­ips, it is the role of the media to support the dictatorsh­ip. In a free society, it is the role of the media to be separated.”

If Baker sounds like a journalist, it’s because he is (he now oversees the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy & Education at Fordham University). Katherine Maher is not a journalist, though she is now a political football.

The CEO of NPR doesn’t need to be a journalist. Newspaper publishers typically come from the business/advertisin­g side of the operation. Maher’s background as a nonprofit executive may have riled up the right, but it certainly syncs with her new role’s most important responsibi­lity — fundraisin­g. The bulk of NPR’s operating budget comes from corporate sponsorshi­ps, donations from individual­s and nonprofit foundation­s, along with membership fees.

And I won’t hold Katherine Maher accountabl­e for comments made before she joined a news outlet.

It doesn’t take much to be too “woke” for the likes of the New York Post and Newsmax. DEI can seem like a fresh line in the sand, but trace that line backward and everyone from Walter Cronkite to Shakespear­e would be called out for being too liberal (“a man portraying a woman passing as a man in ‘As You Like It?’ I don’t like it!” some Globe-goer surely harrumphed).

Katherine Maher now gets to start a new gig while under intense scrutiny. That could be an opportunit­y — for her, for NPR and for its audience.

But don’t expect her to bow to cries from the right to quit before she really gets started. She is, after all, her mother’s daughter.

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