Three great institutions set themselves on fire with self-inflicted wounds

Can the reputations of Harvard University, NPR, and The Washington Post survive recent crises?

By Jeffrey Cole

It’s tough enough to watch institutions that you have long respected be subject to misinformation and intense partisan criticism. It is almost unbearable to witness three of the most trusted sources of information and knowledge in America set themselves on fire as they destroy their own reputations.

Abraham Lincoln, twenty-two years before he became president, warned in the Lyceum Address that the greatest threats come not from external enemies but within: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”

Or, put another way, to quote one of the scariest lines in horror films: “the call is coming from inside the house.”

Within a matter of months, Harvard University, National Public Radio (NPR), and the Washington Post seem unable to bandage reputational losses from self-inflicted wounds. All are highly respected, long-time institutions (Harvard for 388 years) that are facing massive—perhaps permanent—damage from their own mismanagement and bad decisions.

The problems at Harvard—January

In their search for a new president last year, Harvard’s trustees seemed to make diversity the key requirement for a new leader. There were thousands of candidates who could meet the diversity need while also fulfilling Harvard’s mandate for academic and intellectual leadership.  They took the easy route by choosing a known internal candidate, Claudine Gay, a professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies with what had been characterized as only a modest track record as a scholar. It seems that no one else was seriously considered.

Problems with the new president became clear when she was testifying before Congress about the Palestinian protests and dealing with antisemitism on campus. When asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s codes on bullying and harassment, Gay answered in well-rehearsed lawyer-ese: “it can be, depending on the context.” The question called for an answer of moral clarity. The heads of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT answered in the same way. Penn’s leader was gone in a matter of days.

Even before those comments, Harvard’s president had become a target of right-wing conservatives. When investigating Gay’s background, they uncovered several incidents of plagiarism from a few articles in her resume. While a plagiarism investigation usually takes at least six weeks to look at all the published work, in a matter of days Harvard cleared her—not of committing plagiarism but by stating that the acts were not “serious.” After more examples of plagiarism surfaced, Gay resigned.

In this case, Harvard demonstrated that its principles were flexible. The need to appoint a diverse candidate overrode all other considerations and led to a lack of proper vetting (which would have easily uncovered plagiarism). When faced with proof of plagiarism that would have led to any student or faculty member being suspended, expelled, or fired, Harvard did nothing. They were willing to allow a person who violated all the academic and intellectual standards that Harvard is known for remain its leader.

National Public Radio (NPR)—April

NPR’s influence far exceeds the number of people who listen. Its audience is filled with policymakers and others with outsized influence on public opinion.

Like Harvard, NPR has long been a target of conservatives who view it as a far-left news source. Earlier this year, NPR senior business editor and reporter Uri Berliner (winner of a Peabody Award, a Loeb Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award) published (outside of NPR) a commentary blaming the loss of trust and downward trajectory of the radio news operation on wokeness and Democratic partisanship.

The Berliner piece touched off an internal and external discussion of the merit of the charges. Many within NPR, some on and others off the record, supported Berliner’s charges and talked about a news focus that was directed at an increasingly narrow and left-oriented audience.

NPR was experiencing the kind of public examination that all news organizations should face regardless of their political focus. As the discussion was growing in scope, Katherine Maher, the new CEO of NPR, suspended Berliner. She assured all listeners that it was not because of his criticisms of the organization. Instead, and this seriously stretched credibility (NPR’s greatest asset), she suspended him because his commentary violated NPR’s policy on outside work. Several days later, Berliner resigned.

Abraham Lincoln, twenty-two years before he became president, warned in the Lyceum Address that the greatest threats come not from external enemies but within: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Or, put another way, to quote one of the scariest lines in horror films: “the call is coming from inside the house.”

Sadly, the Berliner controversy adds fuel to the right-wing’s desire to see NPR stripped of federal funding, a distinct possibility. When NPR’s problems came to light, Maher decided to stifle the discussion and batten down the hatches, which was a violation of everything NPR stands for. The explanation about a dismissal for outside work fooled no one, and it damaged NPR’s reputation.

The Washington Post—June

Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post, appointed Will Lewis as the new Publisher and CEO of the Washington-based newspaper. Lewis came from the Murdoch media empire, where he had been publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

Several months into his tenure as publisher of the Post, Lewis initiated a re-organization of the paper’s news division, a move that left the editor, Sally Buzbee, feeling she had been demoted.

In announcing her resignation in early June, Buzbee revealed that Lewis asked her to squash a story damaging to him. The story concerned a British judge letting Lewis be named as being involved in the infamous British phone hacking scandals twelve years earlier (when working for Murdoch).

Then, an NPR reporter, David Folkenflik, wrote that Lewis approached him just after he was announced as Post publisher. Lewis promised that, if Folkenflik killed a story detailing his involvement in the hacking scandal, then Lewis would provide Folkenflik with exclusive information about his future plans for the Post.

The story got worse as more came out: last weekend, The New York Times reported that, while at the Sunday Times in London, Lewis used phone and company records that were fraudulently obtained through hacking and paying for information, a violation of any reputable newsroom policies. Most recently, the editor Lewis selected to replace Buzbee, Robert Winnett (also from the Murdoch world) has been linked to similar ethics problems with stolen records.

This is one of the easy cases. It follows the problems like the Harvard case. When your leader has violated clearly set policies and standards, they must go. There should be no debate in this case. Lewis needs to go immediately, regardless of his value to the organization (which is now highly negative) or any publicity that arises.

Sadly, all these unforced errors come from the leaders of the institutions. If anyone should be held to the highest possible standards, it is the president or CEO. Each of these leaders violated the trust placed in them as the guardians of Harvard’s, NPR’s, and the Post’s reputation.

Not only have all three sullied the reputations of their institutions and handed a loaded gun to their critics, but they have also seriously damaged morale within their organizations. How can a Harvard professor, NPR or Post reporter feel good about their organization if their leader is able to get away with behavior that would result in the end of their own careers?

It is a shame that all this is happening to three great organizations in the same year, particularly an election year.

We have learned that all three organizations stand for the highest level of integrity and quality—except when it is inconvenient. Harvard is getting new leadership. The Post cannot be far behind. The CEO of NPR may survive if she can recognize her own and the organization’s mistakes.

It is difficult to have high standards and live up to them. All three institutions need leaders who make this their highest priority.


Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.



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June 17, 2024