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.