NPR’s No-‘Lie’ Policy and the Limits of Impartiality in the Trump Era

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NPR’s No-‘Lie’ Policy and the Limits of Impartiality in the Trump Era

President Trump spoke at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Jan. 21. (Photo: Olivier Doulier/Pool/Getty Images)

After much back and forth over the past few weeks, National Public Radio finally clarified their editorial stance on when it is and isn’t appropriate to call a lie a lie, a determination that many commentators found wanting. NPR’s Richard Gonzales  (1/25/16) wrote Wednesday:

Now many listeners want to know why Kelly didn’t just call the president a liar.

On Morning Edition, Kelly explains why. She says she went to the Oxford English Dictionary seeking the definition of “lie.”

“A false statement made with intent to deceive,” Kelly says. “Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.”

This is a definition of “lying” that renders the very concept of lying meaningless. As The Intercept’s Sam Biddle noted, “by this definition, you could literally never say someone is lying unless you’re talking about yourself.” So unless an NPR reporter can prove Trump’s state of mind beyond a reasonable doubt, they have to be intent-agnostic about the falsehood. Even if the lie in question—that millions of people voted illegally—has been shown to be false dozens of times, including directly to Trump’s  press secretary.

Further clarification by NPR seemed to imply the issue was also about not wanting to appear partisan or anti-Trump. Which is likely the primary motivator, as Gonzales’ recounting of his boss’s views suggests:

NPR’s senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, says NPR has decided not to use the word “lie” and that Kelly got it right by avoiding that word.

“Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody,” says Oreskes. “It’s really important that people understand that these aren’t our opinions…. These are things we’ve established through our journalism, through our reporting … and I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.”

NPR is notorious for bending over backwards to avoid the appearance of a liberal bias, even refusing to carry an opera program in 2011 after its host participated in an Occupy protest. But, in the age of Trump and his unprecedentedly loose relationship with reality, its strict adherence to “both sides” journalism does a great disservice to their listeners—to say nothing of the truth.

Federal funding, according to NPR’s own website, is “essential” to its ability to operate, comprising roughly 6 percent–10 percent of its total revenue, depending on how one parses it. Given Trump’s capricious, vengeful disposition; his already overtly hostile relationship with non-compliant government agencies; and the Republican Party’s existing hatred of publicly funded media, the stir that would be caused by using the  L-word may be seen as too great a risk.

This, however, isn’t the first time that NPR’s playing “both sides” semantic games has provided cover for right-wing forces. For years, NPR obscured reality on the issue of US torture, routinely using the word for other regimes but never for their own (FAIR.org, 5/6/09, 12/14/14). Then–NPR ombud Alicia Shepard  (6/21/09), after much fretting, provided an excuse similar to to the one given yesterday:

It’s a no-win case for journalists. If journalists use the words “harsh interrogation techniques,” they can be seen as siding with the White House and the language that some US officials, particularly in the Bush administration, prefer. If journalists use the word “torture,” then they can be accused of siding with those who are particularly and visibly still angry at the previous administration.

Note the criteria of “can be accused” of taking sides. The issue is not tethered to objective reality, it is tethered to political considerations, namely what the listener will or will not see as side-taking. Or, more to the point, what NPR’s major corporate, foundation and government donors see as side-taking.

While there are certainly grey areas, the claim that millions voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election is objectively false. And the fact that Trump has repeated it over and over again, despite being corrected over and over again, indicates he is acting in bad faith. One does not need to “peer into Donald Trump’s head” to infer he is lying; one simply needs to acknowledge the most baseline standards of reality.

That, NPR has announced, is something it is unwilling to do.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.

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