Revisiting the ‘L word’

When we heard NPR’s segment the other morning about why the network didn’t refer to Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton, denying him a popular vote victory, a “lie”, we figured that NPR’s ombudsman would surely hear about it.

There was no representation on the panel for those who think NPR should use the “L word”, a fact that became more glaring after NPR’s Sam Sanders posted this tweet.

Poor Sanders got a boatload of pushback, which is too bad because that’s Elizabeth Jensen’s job to handle. She’s the NPR ombudsman who weighs in today on the controversy that won’t go away.

Jensen said she was taken aback by the segment because it wasn’t the most important story of the week and NPR made itself the story with this discussion.

  1. Listen NPR And The Word ‘Liar’: Intent Is Key

    January 25, 2017

The reaction to her office was harshly critical. To an extent, she was too.

I think a strong case can be made for very occasionally calling some of Trump’s statements “lies,” particularly the ones he repeats despite extensive reporting that has shown them to be untrue. NPR should use language that is precise. NPR indeed cannot be inside the head of the president (or any other figure who makes demonstrably false statements), but repeated assertions in the wake of incontrovertibly opposite evidence are certainly one indication of intent to deceive.

Oreskes allowed as much Wednesday, saying the word had not been banned, and adding, “I think one of the big challenges for us will be in situations where the falsehood is repeated so often that it becomes clear, the intent. And then I think it’ll be fair to challenge us on the question of — the intent is so obvious that you could add it up and come to the word lie. We’ll see.”

But he did not say what the threshold of repetition would be, and when I asked him, he said it was a case-by-case assessment — and if he thought the word essential to getting the facts across, he would use it. He added that he would defer to NPR’s standards editor, Mark Memmott.

From the sound of things, the issue has really touched off a firestorm within NPR, which clarified yesterday that, for practical puposes, the “L word” is banned without permission for reporters to use it.

But Jensen rejected the assertion of NPR critics who say not using the word abdicates the network’s journalistic responsibility.

That’s simply not true, as far as I’ve seen to this point. NPR’s journalism in recent months has made important contributions to fact-checking, including the live annotation and fact-checks first used during the presidential debates, and more recently for President Obama’s final press conference and Trump’s inaugural address.

The conversation between Mary Louise Kelly and Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that set off this most recent debate about NPR’s policy on “lie” was strong. It did everything a solid piece of journalism should do. It led with the facts about the situation, and only then noted Trump’s incorrect statement. Kelly was clear that the statements made were “false” and “provably untrue” and cited evidence.

Jensen said using “lie” in the story in question threatens NPR’s credibility at a time when the role of a nonpartisan news media is in question.

“Routinely using loaded words to describe the actions and rhetoric of an unconventional president would satisfy some listeners, but also would undermine credibility among others,” she said. “That’s all the more reason to tread very cautiously on this issue.”

  • wjc

    “repeated assertions in the wake of incontrovertibly opposite evidence are certainly one indication of intent to deceive”

    I think I had this. That represents a lie about as much as anything can.

    • Al

      Never use a 25¢ word when a 2¢ word will do. Especially, like, a whole bunch of 25¢ words…

  • Will

    Based on this standard I’d really like to read the NPR article that refers to Harry Reid as lying about Romney’s taxes.

      • Will

        It was reported that Reince called Harry Reid “a dirty liar”. I was thinking as long as the intent was to deceive then NPR would call a lie a lie. Since it looks like even in that case where the intent was clear and the term lie wasn’t directly used by NPR then in the case of Trump where Trump really believes this stuff then the term lie can’t be used either. It’s about being fair to both sides and using the same criteria…I give NPR credit for at least allowing a “liar” quote to be used in that article.

        • How do you prove an intent to lie in order to use the term “lie.” That’s the NPR policy. They couldn’t in Gonyea’s story because being called a liar doesn’t make you one from a journalist point of view. That’s entirely consistent with NPR’s policy in the Trump case.

          The question isn’d whether NPR will or won’t put a quote on the air with someone calling someone a liar. The question is whethere as a matter of fact, a journalist can characterize a statement a lie without knowing intent.

          There’s no question of differing treatment here. The treatment of Reid and Trump was exactly the same.

          • Will

            You can ask if a person lied, Harry Reid has indicated that he clearly lied in at least 1 interview that I know of, perhaps more.

          • Months and years later. We’ll find the same thing, perhaps, when the current White House crowd is gone and writes their tell-all books.

            All of that, of course, is irrelevant to the reality that you can’t say something you can’t prove just because you want to.

          • Will

            Well, if NPR ever does a follow up story on past political “lies” then it’d be great to see the actual lies called what they were. Even Trump’s misguided beliefs, if we find out later that he is intentionally lying.

          • // that he is intentionally lying.

            Is there another kind of lying?

          • Will

            Well if you really believe something is that a lie? Are all religions a lie?

          • So you’re saying there is another kind of lying besides intentional?

  • Khatti

    It’s not that I object to Trump being called a liar, I’m just not sure it matters.

  • Anna

    Why is such a reputable news organization like NPR tip toeing around whether to call a lie a lie?

    Maybe they could provide shaded degrees of lying like when people tell a white lie. Maybe alternative facts could be known as “grey” lies and an absolute untruth could be called a “black” lie.

    Why are we applying political correctness to lying when a lot of the country seems to have abandoned politically correct references for more vivid and once banned descriptions and uses them with utter disregard for their hateful connotations?

    President Trump is all about keeping people off balance with his Twitter bait. If you’re doing your job as in reporting the news, you have nothing to worry about.

    Taking the path of least resistance is the most direct path to journalistic hell as in the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

    Stop taking the bait! That’s what he wants you to do.

    Trump doesn’t mince words and neither should the American press. A lie is a lie is a lie is a lie and any other name is utter nonsense.

    Let the chips fall where they may.

    Have some faith in your supporters, NPR. If the Republicans defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, don’t you think we will step up to the plate?

    • Oh, god, not the “political correctness” stuff again.

      It has nothing to do with the catch-all phrase (interesting to see it now being used by the more liberal side of things, though)

      It’s a question of journalism and while you may disagree with it, it comes from a principled position journalistically.

      Political Correctness is a phrase that people use to avoid having to make a principled argument to rebut one.

      NPR has more than earned the respect to debate the issue on a higher level than that.

  • dukepowell

    Many politicians, at times, will lie publicly. We all remember the statement that “the average family will save $2,500 on health insurance” with the Affordable Care Act, for instance.

    Did millions of illegal immigrants vote for Hillary Clinton? I doubt it. But having said that, many believe we have an unacceptable amount of voter fraud in this country.

    The interesting part of this story is how Trump has directed the Feds to look into the matter and how much push-back that directive is getting.

    • KTN

      Speaking of voter fraud.
      I’ve asked the supporters of the sociopath to find actual cases, charges or prosecutions of systemic voter fraud, and of course they come up with nothing – well other than “we have an unacceptable amount of voter fraud in this country”

      • Postal Customer

        We have an unacceptable amount of voter fraud in this country because I heard somewhere that we have an unacceptable amount of voter fraud in this country.

    • Postal Customer

      “many believe we have an unacceptable amount of voter fraud in this country”

      Yes indeed. Many, many believe.

      • BJ

        Lots of people are saying it.

        • Which doesn’t make it true.

          • BJ

            Yes but some of my friends say its true, I have no idea if it is but I will continue to repeat it because it it said by my friends.

    • Ralphy

      …and perhaps those fraudulent voters are why Trump won in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania…

    • Rob

      The fact that many people believe something that isn’t true is hardly justification for spending tons of taxpayer dollars on a needless investigation.

    • Heb Ienek

      I’ve noticed that too. For folks so sure they’re right, the left sure is putting up a fight against having proof of their claims put in their hands.

      Many states are instituting the requirement for ID at the polls; it’s a trend and its growing.

      Various left leaning groups are trying to fight back in court. Sometimes they win, but the victories are fleeting since legislatures can tweak the law to negate the courts objections.

      Seems to me, the very best weapon against the ID requirement would be to prove it is completely unnecessary.

      Classic case of protesting too much, in my opinion.

      • Rob

        It’s already been proven that voter ID laws are a solution in search of a problem.

        • Heb Ienek

          Sure, if you say so.

          • Rob

            Not me sayin’ it; the evidence is saying it.

          • Heb Ienek

            Sure, sure.

      • X.A. Smith

        Right, but is there any evidence of voter fraud? This is just evidence of suspicion of voter fraud. That’s a different thing. You seem confused.

        • Heb Ienek

          Eh, yeah. Investigations. Evidence. No confusion.

  • kevins

    If anyone thinks The Donald is misstating truth because he naively believes in the lie, they are underestimating him

    • kevins

      I would add, to the point of this post, that intent is critical in labeling a statement a lie, and I believe that The Donald have every intention of misstating the truth on purpose..thus a lie, and repeatedly so. He knows what he is doing.

  • Mike Worcester

    I think I’ve learned more euphemisms for the term “lie” in the last six months than at any point in my half-century of existence.

    Additionally, I’ll throw this one out to all on here — If one has to prove intent to affirm a lie, how does one do that? What are the objective criteria to proving that intent?

    • Anna

      You and me both! Grrrrrrrr

    • Rob

      Any reputable mentalist can tell if a person has the intent to lie. : )

    • Heb Ienek

      Motive. Contrary knowledge or proof beforehand. Malice of forethought.

  • Frankenberries

    Is it a lie if you believe it to be true, even though there is no evidence or facts to back up a claim, just a feeling that it is true. Trump makes many claims in just one day that are demonstrably false, there are many people that fervently claim there is a god that exists without backing that claim up with any evidence, are they lier’s or like Trump delusion? Is it the intent to lie or just not knowing better.

  • ellie

    NPR did a fair amount of “reporting” leading up to the election that consisted of letting their interviewee’s spout off a lot of untruths and then not following up with facts. Maybe the reporters did fact checking but they didn’t bother to share. So I can understand the frustration of a lot of listeners now when NPR doesn’t bother to call people out on their untruths.

    Maybe they don’t need to call them “lies”, but it wouldn’t hurt to share the facts as a counterbalance. Not sharing those facts is the sort of thing that has threatened their credibility. Not which word they’re using.

    Maybe NPR is doing that now, but I’m no longer listening enough to know. They did such a bad job before the election that it’s difficult to trust anything they now report.

    • What info source are you using these days?

      • ellie

        BBC and The Guardian mostly. Sometimes the LA Times. CNN is also doing a surprising amount of decent reporting, but I don’t expect it to last. And Mother Jones is doing a good job of getting breaking news out quickly.

  • Rob

    Just saw a headline in the Washington Post in which the phrase “evidence-free” was used to refer to Tea-rump’s whoppers. If NPR can’t bring itself to call a lie a lie, “evidence-free” would make a mighty fine substitute, IMHO. And if that’s still too soft-sounding, the word “bulls¢¡t!” also serves as a nice descriptor.

  • By today’s NPR standards, by the way, this guy would be considered unethical.

    • Rob

      How so?

  • One minefield in stating that something is a lie, is figuring out WHICH is the lie.

    • Rob

      Not sure what your point is; such bans are unconstitutional.

    • AmiSchwab

      thats not really a lie, just plain hypocrisy.

    • Will

      Yeah, I’m not liking the blanket ban…let people come here who helped our troops. Anyone who has gone through thorough vetting already should be allowed in…let’s not act like this is a ban on Muslims…it’s a ban on people from unstable countries, period. But I agree, it has gone too far with where it is today.

      • Leroy

        It’s a ban on people from unstable countries… where our president hasn’t done business. We haven’t been attacked in the U.S. by people from the countries the ban extends to.

        • Will

          What about the St. Cloud stabbing???

        • Anna

          Let’s hope some news organization picks up on the self-dealing that is hinted at in the ban and Congress acts on it.

          I would think that limiting the ban only to countries where Trump DOES NOT have business interests would be considered self-dealing.

          There have been terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Indonesia and Turkey with two in Turkey within the last three months.

          Muslims in these three countries are just as vulnerable to radicalization as those in the banned countries.

          Al Quaeda originated in Saudi Arabia with Osama bin Laden. Are we going to give them a pass just because Osama bin Laden was finally killed?

          Let’s face it. There is no way to fully vet these peoples’ use of the Internet which is the prime way many of them become radicalized. It’s like trying control where the wind blows.

          The ban is wreckless and short-sighted.

          We need to put pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Dubai to start ejecting suspected al Quaeda and ISIL militants.

          Wait a minute….

          We can’t do that because the president has business interests there and it might affect his bottom line.

          Oh! What a tangled web we weave….

        • Will

          Stable countries are where you do business; the company I work for has had contracts with the Saudi’s, our own military, Ethiopia, China, Egypt, Russia, Kazakhstan, France, UK, etc. It’s not some crazy conspiracy…it’s how business is done. Unstable countries are hard to do business in and it’s harder to track citizens from those places.

          Does no one remember the blanket ban Obama had in 2011 on Iraq??? Or is the outrage only reserved for Republicans:

          • Everything’s going to be just fine now that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has been removed from the National Security Council .

            Just fine.


          • AmiSchwab

            scary, and even more scary because no one seems to notice. or care. bannon bad!

          • Rob

            Bannon is the Rasputin of our time.

          • Will

            Well it is frightening but Trump was sent to Washington to shake things up…he’s delivering, I’m just as interested so see what happens next on Real World, White House edition.

          • Rob

            You left out the important bits: it was a temporary ban, and it was done following FBI discovery that several suspected terrorists had come from Iraq to the U.S..

          • Will

            Like how ISIS is recruiting recent Minnesota immigrants and second generation migrants from the Islamic countries that were banned (temporarily in this case as well)?

        • KTFoley

          No one has been killed in a confirmed act of terror carried out by people from the countries to which the ban applies.

          To clarify: Dahir Adan, the immigrant and college student, stabbed nine people in a St. Cloud shopping mall in September 2016 before being killed by an off-duty police officer. All the stabbing victims survived their injuries.

          ISIS claimed him as a solder of the Islamic state, which appeared to stun everyone who actually knew him. It’s likely the investigation is ongoing and/or the results will not be made public.

    • Will

      Federal court stopped it, see our systems to work.