NPR uses ‘lie’ in Trump coverage

During the presidential campaign a year ago, NPR news execs caught a lot of grief for not saying Donald Trump lied.

It put them in a debate with the New York Times, you may recall.

“It would almost be illiterate to have not called the birther thing a lie,” Dean Baquet, the New York Times’ executive editor, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep last September.

At the height of the campaign, Michael Oreskes, NPR’s news boss, penned a letter to NPR listeners to explain why the network refuses to call a lie what others call a lie.

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.

NPR’s Morning Edition even followed up with a story about why the network won’t use the word.

So it didn’t escape the attention of those listeners this week when NPR’s David Folkenflik told Here & Now, the WBUR/NPR talk show (not carried on MPR), that Donald Trump Jr. “knowingly lied” in July 2016 when asked about contact between his father’s presidential campaign and Russian figures.

Folkenflik cleared the use of the word with his boss before using the word, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen writes.

Why did NPR use the word? Because Trump Jr. lied.

NPR had cited two main reasons for not using the word up until this point, even though some other news organizations, notably The New York Times, had begun to use it sparingly. First, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s, definition of “to lie” is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” NPR editors have argued that it was not possible to know or prove whether misstatements by Trump and his entourage were made with such intent. In addition, newsroom leaders said that using such a loaded word would potentially put off some listeners and readers. (To be clear, while NPR has avoided using the word “lie” until now, it has reported when statements from the president, his aides and family members differ from the facts.)

In this case, Memmott wrote, “We applied our thinking from before. If there is clear evidence that a person knows something to be untrue, then intent is no longer an issue,” adding, the emails released by Donald Trump Jr. “make it hard to argue that he could have believed some of the things he later said were true,” a point Folkenflik also made on Here and Now.

NPR listeners and readers who questioned just when NPR would find it appropriate to use the word now have an answer — supporting documents could be one important factor.

In a January column, Jensen endorsed the NPR reticence on the use of the word.

“It’s very loaded. NPR stands for civil dialogue, as old-fashioned as that might sound. If a listener — particularly one who is politically open to the issues or not a heavy news consumer — will automatically tune out when hearing the word ‘lie’ and not go on to listen to the actual evidence that is being presented to back up the label, then NPR will have failed in its mission to give citizens, whatever their political orientation, the information they need to make informed decisions,” she wrote.

Related: The strikingly broad consequences of the argument that Donald Trump Jr. broke the law by expressing interest in Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton (The Volokh Conspiracy)

  • Reticence over the use of the word “lie” to describe a purposeful untruth is not necessary. We know what it means to lie.

    • BJ

      >We know what it means to lie.

      ah, it might true for those whom ‘we’ only includes people who can use ‘Reticence ‘ correctly (or at all) in a sentence.

      I like that words and the use of them matter to NPR (and MPR).

  • lindblomeagles

    Although I think NPR should have used the word “lie” back then (and wrote as much on News Cut), I understand why NPR reluctantly didn’t. During 2016, the media and the Trump Camp claimed the nation was bitterly divided and furious. In a show of tremendous disrespect, the Trump Campaign tapped into that division and fury by uttering offensive, degrading, and inflammatory comments, then cried “political correctness had ran amok,” thereby censoring those who claimed the Trump camp was racist, sexist, Islamaphobes, anti-Semitic, chauvinist, etc. When the mainstream media offered the public evidence the Trump Camp’s language were those things (and inciting violence), the Trump Camp called that news “fake news,” which kept anger alive and effectively censored honest, direct, and accurate criticism of the Trump Campaign. It’s important to note the Trump Campaign carried rural communities and small states from the Atlantic to the Pacific, areas NPR (with the exception of New England) genuinely reaches out too. It’s also important to note NPR relies on government funding, a revenue stream controlled by conservatives, specifically House conservatives who align with Trump’s philosophy and methodology. Some states, like Tennessee, are controlled by conservatives who share the same thing with the Trump Camp. Collins reported a few months ago the sad story of an NPR journalist who was fired because she inadvertently caught a conservative politician at a bad time (for him). Her station was supported by one of Tennessee’s universities, and that university relied on the state’s conservative delegation for funding. NPR is not immune to market forces. You try to be as independent as you can, but in the end, some loyalty is given to the people who keep your lights on.