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)