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.

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.”