I was taken aback to wake up Wednesday to a Morning Edition report about why NPR is not using the word "lie" to "characterize the statements of President Trump when they are at odds with evidence to the contrary," as a separate post on NPR's Two-Way blog put it.
I was surprised, because NPR's choice of language is far from the most important story this week, when a new administration has come in amid a whirl of executive actions and executive orders to upend the status quo in just a few days.
But language is important, and NPR, for better or worse, decided to make itself the story. (And, to be fair, I think NPR is doing a very good job of keeping up with the torrent of much more significant news out of the White House this week.)
This column will attempt to address the several hundred emails (and an untold number of social media posts) to my office and NPR's Audience Services department that were harshly critical of NPR's policy. I've included a representative sampling of listener letters below. They and others used words like "shocked," "appalled," "horrified," "cowardice," "sanctimonious," "timid" and "complicit." (A proportionally much smaller number of listeners and readers did weigh in to say they agree with NPR.)
The policy, in brief, is to largely avoid using the word "lie." As NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly said Wednesday, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a "lie" as "'a false statement made with intent to deceive.' 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 fact ... " (One small note: the OED is not NPR's dictionary of record — that would be Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition. But it, too, uses the standard of "intent to deceive.")
Michael Oreskes, NPR's head of news, added this: "Our job as journalists is to report — to find facts, establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. And I think that when you use words like lie, it gets in the way of that."
For a more extensive explanation, see Oreskes' original articulation of the policy, dating back to September, before the election outcome.
Other news organizations are grappling with this issue, as well. Some, like The Associated Press, have avoided the word. The Washington Post has used it on the opinion pages, mostly. The New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet laid out his reasons for adopting judicious use of the word for Fresh Air's Terry Gross in December and earlier on Morning Edition. A front-page Times headline Tuesday said: "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers."
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.
In a note to staff Thursday, Memmott reiterated, "We are not using the L-word," adding that any requests for exceptions must first be approved by senior newsroom executives. (I could argue that the threshold has been reached in the case of the president's recent assertion — for which no evidence has been found — that votes by millions of illegal immigrants were what led to his loss of the popular majority vote in the recent election.)
I also think NPR has very good reasons to steer clear of using the word "lie," and certainly not to use it routinely. 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.
Tom Rosenstiel, a probing thinker on the purpose and standards of journalism, agreed in a recent essay. As he put it, journalists today need "to keep their cool." Factualism, he wrote, requires "tonal restraint," and "becoming hyperventilated also plays into the hands of politicians who want to disarm and weaken the press by dismissing them as the opposition. The way to elevate factual reporting is to build the facts into a self-evident citadel that cannot be assaulted, not to adorn the citadel with flagrant slogans." He added, "To call something a falsehood and then offer the evidence in a clear and mounting way is a powerful and dispassionate way to dispel the lie. If the reportorial media slip into the heated language of the commentary media, they will lose their footing."
Oreskes raised a similar point with me Wednesday. As Trump said Saturday during his visit to the CIA, "I have a running war with the media." Stephen Bannon, Trump's chief White House strategist, in an interview with The New York Times, called the media "the opposition party." But, Oreskes told me, "We're not at war with the president," which is a reason to avoid using charged language. Oreskes also told The Washington Post, "The more the administration yells at us the calmer our presentation should be. We should avoid being baited into fights that seem to confirm the claim that we are at war."
A few people have argued that by not using the word "lie," NPR is abdicating its mission to hold the administration (any administration, not just the new one) accountable. 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.
One final thought: As the political climate has moved into a period of profound change in recent years, with the shattering of traditional political structures and alliances, and extreme polarization of the electorate, heated rhetoric has gained traction. The role of a nonpartisan news media increasingly has come into question.
That poses a serious challenge for NPR and its peer organizations in maintaining their credibility — the most vital asset of any news organization. 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. That's all the more reason to tread very cautiously on this issue.
A sampling of emails we've received:
Ellen Royse of Hyattsville, Md.: I have come trust NPR as a truth telling and truth seeking news organization. I am deeply concerned by the organization's stance to not name the false statements of the Trump administration as lies. Repeating these statements and simply reporting their falsehood without calling them lies is not a neutral action. It gives these lies a greater platform and ascribes the administration's actions with innocence or confusion. Creating and propagating these lies is a strategic choice to undermine the factual information that voters have access to. NPR must continue its fact checking, but also join the NYT in naming these lies as lies.
John S. Cook of Frederick, Md.: With regard to not using the word "lie" with what Trump says. A singular statement made in error may simply be an error. It is not possible to determine intent to deceive on every incorrect statement made. However, when a person makes repeated statements (not isolated, unrelated statements, but rather the *same* statements in succession) that are repeatedly shown to him to not be accurate or demonstrably false, then he intends to deceive. There is no other logical conclusion here. Courts of law have found intent to deceive in far lesser circumstances. To fail to identify a lie as a lie is a gross failure of journalism. To simply report Donald Trump's statements which are repeatedly shown to be false and to not conclude that he is lying is not just a failure of logic, it's not just a failure of reporting, it shows that you will aid and abet anything he does. The President has to be held to the highest standards of truth, otherwise you are idly standing by while the word "spin" is completely redefined.
A. Epstein of Boston: I take very strong exception to the recent announcement (by NPR leadership) that Mary Louise Kelly was correct in not calling untruths lies because the mindset of the speaker was not known. We are long time contributors and listeners. I find this stance to be an utter cop out by a news organization known for its embrace of truth. We never really know what is in someone else's head. The idea that we have to be certain of the speaker's thoughts or thought processes is not a standard any of us can rationally follow. However, words and actions do matter. Please do not fall into the "alternative facts" rabbit hole. I expect better from NPR.
Robert Little of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: While I appreciate NPR's journalistic integrity and greatly value its contributions I have to take exception with your position on the use of the word lie. We are in truly exceptional times and Donald Trump and his administration are relying on the media establishment to use what I'll call the "old rules." His supporters for the past two years have repeatedly expressed admiration for his "plain language" and clearly need to be spoken to in a very direct way. I would ask that you reconsider the use of the word when it is clearly applicable.
Daniel Kueper of Canal Winchester, Ohio: I was very disappointed to see that NPR will refuse to identify the lies of President Trump as precisely what they are: lies. I am unconvinced by the rationale Mary Louise Kelly offers: that they cannot discern his intent when he speaks a falsehood, such as on voter fraud. If there is absolutely no basis for a claim, and a rational person would understand that there is no basis for a claim, then we understand that the person speaking a falsehood is perpetrating a lie. It seems that NPR is ducking here just to curry favor with the Trump voters in its audience.
Analee Wulfkuhle of South Deerfield, Mass.: Hey, you're doing much better on reporting the "mis-truths," "inaccuracies." etc. of Trump and his spokespeople. The statements don't have to be called "lies" (although the INTENT is clear to me...) — as long as you emphatically reveal that the statements are not true! Thanks for your coverage of how you are considering this issue. I appreciate the thought you are giving to it and your transparency in telling us!
Editorial researcher Annie Johnson contributed to this report.