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NPR's Full Court Press On Presidential Press Conferences

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 27, 2017 12:33 pm

The Ombudsman's office heard this week and last from listeners with varying concerns around how NPR covers major appearances by President Donald Trump. We took them to the newsroom for reaction.

A number of listeners have noticed that NPR has several times in recent weeks preempted its normal programming, including the midday Here and Now, for live coverage of Trump's appearances with international leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president's Feb. 16 press conference also aired live.

Some listeners have told me they appreciate the chance to hear directly from the president. But others aren't so happy about it. Morgan Ahouse of Seattle wrote: "I'd like you to stop carrying live the president's press conferences...Instead, I'd like you to broadcast his messages on a time delay that allows newscasters to comment on his upcoming distortions, rather than long after he's repeated his false messages."

Nancy Laurence of Corvallis, Ore., wrote: "I feel that NPR is playing into President Trump's control and chaos strategy with preempting regular broadcasting, waiting for his special press conference on short notice." She, too, argued that the press conferences should be covered after the fact, "when the President has actually said something new."

And Joe Cason of Olympia, Wash., said the live coverage "calls to mind the image of a compliant dairy cow being led around hither and yon by the nose."

Listeners are not hearing things; the amount of live coverage is up. There are two reasons, said Michael Oreskes, NPR's top news executive. One has nothing to do with Trump: NPR made a decision nearly a year ago to do more live coverage, period. (NPR also recently aired President's Barack Obama's final press conference live.)

"It's about the idea that radio is a great place to give you live, up-to-the-minute news," Oreskes said, adding, "In a world of many options, radio continues to have one great advantage and that is its ability to go live."

The other reason is newsworthiness. Oreskes defended the recent decisions on the Trump appearances, given that the administration has signaled it will pull out of its major trade treaty with Canada and has already pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would have included Japan. Israel, meanwhile, is one of the country's closest allies. He added that there is no blanket policy to always take presidential appearances live (nor has there ever been at NPR) and each decision to go live is made case-by-case.

My thoughts: A new president who comes in with an agenda as ambitious as that of the current administration is inherently newsworthy, and I don't question the recent decisions. But I would hope that going forward NPR would be judicious in making these choices. Hearing directly from a news source is valuable, but no White House should have an unlimited platform.

Separately, we heard from several listeners who were unhappy over statements made by Maria Hinojosa on the cable network MSNBC. Hinojosa is the host and executive producer of Latino USA, a show that NPR distributes but does not produce. She is not an NPR employee, but is nonetheless closely associated with NPR.

Saturday, Hinojosa was on AM Joy on MSNBC, with others, and had this exchange:

Joy Reid: Maria Hinojosa, who won the week?

Maria Hinojosa: Taking off on what Kurt [Eichenwald] said and to start with the big losers, for me, and my heart breaks to say this, to me, the losers were actually our colleagues in the mainstream media who continue to send our top talent to be completely insulted and disrespected by the president of the United States. It begins to feel like we are in an abusive relationship and that we're putting ourselves out there to be attacked. So I would say once again, and I know this is difficult, it's a challenge, but can we just get the interns with their note cards to start asking the president, who is acting so immature? This is not in disrespect to interns, but maybe they will be around the same age.

Reid: So you're saying the network should not send their top talent into those briefings?

Hinojosa: I know it's a challenge. I think we should choose when are they going to go to a briefing. I think that there should be an attempt, when there's a press conference called by the president, that no one shows up.

Those who contacted my office said they saw in her comments an NPR bias against the president.

Oreskes had this response:

"Maria was expressing a personal opinion during a segment on a cable news show. She is not an NPR spokesperson and does not speak for NPR's newsroom. NPR will continue covering this administration as it has covered every administration since 1971: Attending White House briefings but also pursuing sources and stories on our own. Thanks to our member stations we have reporters in every corner of the country. We are not constrained by the DC bubble. Our journalists know their beats well and have experience covering politics and most importantly listening to people's concerns all over the country."

No argument from me there. As Oreskes previously told me, NPR is not in a war with the White House; it is there to do its job, which includes covering presidential appearances and press briefings, a component of White House transparency for which news organizations rightfully fight hard.

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