NPR won’t chase a presidential lie

Dreck, lies, and audiotape

I ran into a most interesting article by Richard Gonzalez at National Public Radio (NPR). The radio network has decided not to refer to certain Trump-team declarations as “lies.”

We Pennsylvanians have seen this before. 1903 'Tacoma Times' editorial cartoon by Bob Satterfield. (Image via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The report that generated NPR’s decision was made by correspondent Mary Louise Kelly on the January 23, 2017, broadcast of Morning Edition. She discussed President Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters, where he repeated his whopper about the inauguration crowd's size more than once. Two days later, NPR posted Gonzalez’s essay.  

 NPR’s senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, said that “NPR has decided not to use the word ‘lie’ and that Kelly got it right by avoiding that word.” Here is a transcript of Kelly’s report.

I also found audio on WHYY’s site of Marty Moss-Coane’s January 23, 2017, episode of Radio Times (broadcast the same day as Kelly’s report), under the header: The Aisles Have Eyes; first, Spicer's lies. In that broadcast, Moss-Coane interviewed Washington Post national political correspondent Karen Tumulty, and both women freely used the word “lie” in discussing this knotty problem in journalistic practice. Tumulty specifically refers to the concept of intent, which is part of NPR’s rationale in barring the use of the "nasty term" (per Gonzalez): A lie involves “intent.” That word is in Gonzalez’s headline.

This should concern WHYY listeners, since Moss-Coane, long a fixture on our airwaves, apparently might now be forced to self-censor. Will she use the “L-word”? And what’s next? Does “falsehood,” another term Moss-Coane and Tumulty used on that episode -- and one ordinarily understood as a synonym for “lie” -- also have to involve intent?

Declaring intent

Let’s focus on what’s wrong with NPR’s new policy with the hope that it can be reconsidered, or at least given an asterisk.

“Intent” is a slippery matter. (I feel, here, as though I’m suddenly in a Catholic grade-school class, debating the definition of sin.) Those journalists who are free to do so are already out in the field or in their studios repeatedly shouting “Lie!” at various intransigent talking heads. I’d like to suggest to NPR that the following strikes me as both true and defensible: Repeating a falsehood in the face of overwhelming credible evidence to the contrary establishes the intent to lie – to “gaslight,” to put up a smokescreen, to advance the Big Lie until it’s accepted by more and more people. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about crowd size, five million illegal voters, or an employment rate that’s “really 28 percent.”

Another defense Oreskes advanced for his new policy is, “The minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you." Michael, Michael, Michael. Those people you’re worrying about pushing away are not listening to NPR, and at this juncture are very, very unlikely to start. This is a red herring.

Finally, though, what is most disturbing about this capitulation is that it demonstrates that the infant Trump administration actually is -- now, already, just one week in -- having a chilling effect on journalistic practice. Worse, they’ve done it with the most outrageous L-words: declarations that aren’t even close to the truth.

Our readers respond

Roz Warren

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on January 31, 2017

I listen to a lot of NPR programming and had suspected that this was true but didn't realize that it was an actual policy. Shame on them — and thanks for calling them out!

Claire Wolfe

of Pompano Beach , FL on February 01, 2017

Perhaps we have a case here of "a rose by any other name"? Falsehood or lie, it's all the same to me. I certainly comprehend the intent of either word.

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on February 01, 2017

If the Republicans were smart, they would keep NPR and the NEA and fill them with people who love country music. While we can bemoan the loss of public funding for public broadcasting and the arts, that can be a liberating thing. No longer beholden to federal funding, a private NPR etc. should embolden them to say what they really think. A private NPR really has a chance to be more political instead of what the Republicans want (less political).

When the British occupied Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, someone told Franklin, "General Howe has taken Philadelphia." Franklin replied: "No, Philadelphia has taken General Howe." The Republicans may have the power now, but the liberals have literature, art, dance, theater, opera, science, curiosity, a desire to travel. The liberals should make it clear they didn't lose— they really won.

Connie Briggs

of Abington, PA on February 01, 2017

I started looking at WHYY/NPR less favorably when they started advertising several years ago for Independence Blue Cross, I asked them if this might keep them from airing hard-hitting journalism against the health insurance industry. They insisted that they are professional journalists and that would not happen. But to this day I don't think of WHYY/NPR the same way. When you need money and someone can give you quite a lot, maybe lies don't look like lies so much.

Diane Blum

of Bala Cynwyd, PA on February 07, 2017

Today's NPR headline illustrates this outrage: "White House List Contradicts Trump Claim That Terror Attacks Go Unreported." Trump "claim?" Not even Trump "false claim?" Trump "lie" would be much more accurate!

NPR: We desperately need accurate reporting these days when there are so many lies out there!

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