Why NPR didn’t call Donald Trump a liar

NPR’s news boss is firing back at media critic Jay Rosen, who chastised the news organization on Twitter today for its coverage of Donald Trump’s appearance Wednesday at a church in Flint, Mich.

In his first-person account, posted on NPR.org today, reporter Scott Detrow said Trump’s account of the event — Trump criticized the church’s pastor and said the audience demanded he be allowed to speak against her wishes — was wrong.

“The audience was saying, ‘Let him speak, let him speak,’ ” Trump told Fox and Friends.

That isn’t true. In fact, several audience members began to heckle Trump, asking pointed questions about whether he racially discriminated against black tenants as a landlord.

And that’s when Timmons — who Trump said Thursday had planned to ambush him — stepped in to defend Trump, saying the Republican nominee was “a guest of my church, and you will respect him.”

“Thank you. Thank you, Pastor,” Trump responded.

Not tough enough for Rosen.

In a post on the NPR site today, Michael Oreskes, NPR’s vice president of news, had this answer for why the NPR report didn’t call Trump a “liar”.

We want everyone to listen to us and read us. We want our reporting to reach as many people as possible. It is a well-established piece of social science research that if you start out with an angry tone and say something a listener disagrees with, they will tune out the facts.

But if you present the facts calmly and without a tone of editorializing you substantially increase the chance that people will hear you out and weigh the facts. That is why the tone of journalism matters so much. We need potential listeners and readers to believe we are presenting the facts honestly, and not to confirm our opinions.

We aren’t the first to recognize this. Indeed, John Adams introduced this idea into the American conversation before the revolution. He famously (or infamously) represented the British soldiers who fired on a crowd in what became known as the Boston massacre.

Most people in Boston wanted to denounce the soldiers and execute them. But Adams saw it differently. In the course of the trial he presented the facts to show that the crown and the government in Great Britain were to blame — not the soldiers. “Facts,” he said in his summation to the jury, “are stubborn things.”

That approach of patiently adding up the facts led directly to the growing support for the revolution. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence was presented as a submission of facts to a candid world.

It is not overly sweeping a thought to say this is a nation built on a faith in facts. At NPR we still hold that faith in facts.

We doubt that you, our audience, needs us to characterize people, least of all presidential candidates. You can hear the facts in Scott Detrow’s account and decide for yourself what the facts say about the candidate.

The more we inflame our tone, the less people will listen. What we need these days as a network, and as a country, is for people to listen more.

  • crystals

    “That isn’t true” is quite straightforward, actually. I’m fine with it.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I find the Adams reference interesting. The fact that John Adams represented the British soldiers was important because he was consider by many at the time to be the best lawyer on the continent. It illustrates what was discussed earlier this week about the Bill of Rights. and the ideas enshrined in the 6th amendment. (Right to a speedy trial by jury and access to counsel.) We tend to forget that many of the ideas and ideals that permeate the foundation documents of this country were lived by the people who were involved. (Although Adams was not involved directly in the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.)

  • J Albert Almendinger

    If it was incumbent upon the media to point out the lies of the 2016 Presidential candidates there would be no time or space for any other news. But, if they must, let them start with Ms. Clinton’s testimony in front of the Senate and House investigative committees. Candidates are expected to lie to the voters but shouldn’t they, at the very least, tell the truth under oath?

  • NPR, like the rest of the mainstream media, is too afraid or just lazy to call Trump a liar, as he continues to lie repeatedly. I made the same statement on my FB about the lack of ability to simply say “Trump is a liar” and how ridiculous these news outlets look when they purposely avoid stating that fact.

    • Postal Customer

      Journalistic gymnastics.

      Clinton has p’d off the media because they “haven’t been given access.” It took a lot of bellyaching from media watchdogs to get the NYTimes to mention Trump’s bribe of Pam Bondi.

      If Trump wins, it’s on the media.

      • jon

        The media needs a horse race… if the polls were lopsided enough to give the race to clinton no matter what happened then why would anyone watch the news to see what happened?

        Trump does really poorly, the media gives him a pass for a few weeks, and harps on Clinton.

        I don’t’ think the media wants Trump to win… but they also want the ratings and money that come with a contentious and close race.

  • Jay Sieling

    I think I get it. I’ve mulled it over for some time. My initial response was if this is about the facts – the facts are that Mr. Trump lied about the encounter. Is calling someone a liar a fact or an opinion? How can “he lied” be an opinion, when given the facts?
    But then I remembered a TED Talk by Pamela Meyer, about lying. She points out lying is a cooperative act. It is a two part process. Many will choose to believe Mr. Trump’s account. He isn’t lying to them. A degree of embellishment to add drama to a story, or to fit a narrative into a different context may end up being counter factual – but should the teller be labeled liar? Are they saying “East” is “West” to cause harm or confusion, or do they not know the difference?
    My father in law suffers from dementia. He may claim that he worked 30-40 hours a day everyday as a kid. Or that the air is freezing in the car when the heat is blasting at 90 degrees. Those statements are factually NOT TRUE. But we don’t call him ‘liar’ we don’t say he lies. Intent plays a role. The news VP has a point to present facts. Mr Trump’s “facts” are different from most of those others present. The role of the news is not to provide the judgment. That is what the readers and listeners do. Read the facts, consider the sources, use cognitive complexity to examine things from all sides and reach a conclusion, a judgment.
    Having done that I will share my opinion – Trump lied.

    • Anna

      The problem is too many consumers fail to “Read the facts, consider the sources, use cognitive complexity to examine things from all sides and reach a conclusion, a judgment.”

      Too many consumers of the news, whether it is from online sources, cable/TV sources or print sources, do not “examine things from all sides.” They only look at the side that will reinforce their view.

    • basketjones

      I think that “would we call this a lie if a person with dementia said it” is too low a standard for someone running for president. I also think that it only takes one person to lie, regardless of what a TED speaker might have said. I have a third thought: does anyone honestly think Donald Trump is unintentionally lying here?

    • Rob

      I’m sorry about your dad, but people with dementia get a pass. When you aren’t able to know what’s a fact and what isn’t, you can’t be accused of making untrue statements or telling lies. Trump does presumably know the difference, and should be held to a higher standard. The fact, not the opinion, is that he lied.

    • chris

      The word Facts doesn’t belong in quotes in your comment.

      “Many will choose to believe Mr. Trump’s account. He isn’t lying to them.”

      Wrong. He is a liar, lying to them.

  • lindblomeagles

    Trump has lied throughout his campaign, and if journalists weren’t so busy waiting for him to say something outrageous, the media might print, tweet, Facebook, or stream an encyclopedia of lies told by Donald Trump. But, here’s the LARGER problem — American voters don’t seem care what Trump stands for or does. He’s made racist statements, and still has 40% of the vote. He’s made sexist statements, and still has 40% of the vote. He’s created fictitious economic proposals, and still has 40% of the vote. He’s kissed, hugged, and courted Vladimir Putin, one of the most vicious dictators Asia has witnessed seen since Joseph Stalin, and still, he has 40% of the vote. NPR could have called Trump Lucifer and it wouldn’t matter. American voters have gotten that lazy with their voting, that enraged with diversity, that bitter about the other party, that the only thing 40% of the American public wants is revenge. In another time period, a different era, maybe Trump doesn’t make it through the primary. But, the 40% are out to make some point regardless of how bad Trump is. Short of going to jail (and Trump is on trial for Trump University in a real court of law now), he will get 40% of the vote come November.

    • Dave S.

      You’re right that American voters have gotten lazy. I have another explanation for that 40%: They support Trump because they don’t have to try to figure out whether he’s lying.

  • Matt

    NPR’s explanation fails to acknowledge the facts. What happened is a fact. What Trump said about what happened is a fact. What happened and what Trump said about what happened do not match, and what Trump said happened did not in fact occur. What Trump said, his description of the event, was false. And at a rare time, NPR had a reporter there to provide audio and a personal account.

    Calling what Trump said “false” is not editorializing. It is stating the facts. This is not the same as calling someone a liar, which implies an intent to deceive. Trump may be manipulative, deceptive, and a liar, but it would be editorializing to say that he is manipulative, deceptive, or a liar. It is not editorializing to state that what he said was “false.” Journalists do it in all sorts of other contexts, why give politicians a pass?

    I’ll write the copy of the NPR conversation myself:

    Trump was invited to a church in Flint, Mich. On Fox news the next day, he described the encounter as [roll tape here]. Mr. Trump’s description of what happened at that church is false. Our reporter Scott Detrow was there.

    HOST: Scott, were you the church and could see the interactions between Trump and Pastor, and could hear the crowd?

    DETROW: Yes, and I have it on tape.

    [plays tape of Host interrupting Trump.]

    HOST: On Fox, Trump said the pastor was nervous and shaking. Was that an accurate description of what happened?

    DETROW: No, what Trump said was false.

    HOST: On Fox, Trump said that persons in the audience were encouraging him to keep talking? Was that an accurate description of what happened?

    DETROW: No, what Trump said was false.


    By presenting the “facts” for people to evaluate, they are asking listeners to determine who is more credible – the nominee, or their own reporter. Only one can be correct.

    • Matt

      I sent a more flushed-out version of this to the Ombudsman – I’ll post any response I get.

  • basketjones

    Is this the same NPR that decided to call torture “enhanced interrogation” in deference to the Bush administration? Cool.

    I’m glad they’re just kind of openly admitting that they’re willing to cater their style manual to avoiding any language that might offend Trump supporters. I’m sure they’re just hedging their bets in case of a Trump win. Having integrity can be kind of a liability.

    • Rob

      Right on. I still feel NPR has more journalistic integrity than other media, but their cowardice on the refusal to call torture, torture definitely diminished my confidence in them.

  • Rob

    Glad NPR at least had the stones to let Scott Detrow’s declaration that Trump’s claim wasn’t true hit the airwaves. I get that there is/can be a difference between something being false and something being a lie, but when there’s enough evidence that an untrue statement is done volitionally and is not just a mistake of fact or of perception, it’s incumbent on the media to have the courage to call it a lie.

  • Gary F

    If they started calling Trump out for his lies, then, because they are unbiased(cough, clear throat), then they will need to call Hillary out for all her lies.

    • Justin McKinney

      Do you ever call out the GOP, or just come on here and troll Dems?

      • Gary F

        I’m adding “diversity” to the conversation, there are plenty of you to call out the GOP.

        So, do you have any problem with the lies over the last week with the medical incident with Queen Hillary? She collapses, they they call it dehydration, then they ship her to Chelsea’s apartment, not a hospital, then they call it pneumonia, then a few hours later she comes out of the apartment looking chipper as ever, and if she’s really got pneumonia, why is she hugging that young girl? And I all people I knew that had pneumonia, were hacking all the time. They must have her jacked up on codeine.

        • The post is about calling a candidate a liar, regardless of party. The comments here need to focus on that.

          So do that, people or comment somewhere else, please.

          • Gary F

            So why doesn’t NPR call our Hillary on being a habitual liar?

          • Justin McKinney

            I would submit that NPR, and MPR as well, both do a very good job of analyzing the things that both candidates say, and calling them out when they’re not accurate. Example: when either candidate gave their speeches at their respective conventions, fact-checking and analysis was done on BOTH candidates, in an almost identical fashion.

          • Did you read Oreskes’ letter?

        • Justin McKinney

          I guess I am less concerned about someone Clinton’s age having some health issues during a time in their life when they’re probably not taking great care of themselves (burning the candle at both ends, so to speak – just like any candidate of any significance at this time, Trump included) than I am with the prospect of having someone with Trump’s temperament as the leader of our country. I served in the military for over a decade, and my oldest son is in the Army Reserves right now. I become physically ill when I think about the potential for him ending up in harm’s way more quickly because someone said something about a *shudder* President Trump that he didn’t like and he sends in the military.

          To directly answer your question, yes, I have a problem with dishonesty in general. But I am not so naive to think that either one of them major party candidates is honest in any substantive manner. It comes with being in politics or business for as long as either one of them has been there.

          • Gary F

            Thank you and your son for you service. If your son was stationed in Benghazi, would you have approved how it was handled and the lies, which are now documented, were given out by SOS Clinton? It’s the same commercial as 4 years ago, “its 3 AM, and who’s gonna answer the red phone”. We already know how she handled it once, and now she’s got a medical condition.

          • chris

            Actually numerous hearings and investigations have shown Clinton did nothing wrong. Now how about the congress not passing funding for more diplomatic security before Benghazi. Don’t suppose that will be investigated.

    • Read that sentence back to yourself.

  • Closing comments because people aren’t interested in the actual blog post. Do better next time.