NPR And The Word 'Liar': Intent Is Key

Jan 25, 2017
Originally published on January 25, 2017 2:19 pm

There's an active debate inside newsrooms, and particularly within the NPR newsroom, about how to characterize the statements of President Trump when they are at odds with evidence to the contrary.

That debate began during the presidential election campaign. For example, in 2015, candidate Trump claimed that when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, "I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down."

The claim was never substantiated and NPR said so. But we didn't call him a liar.

In September 2016, Trump got into a tiff with an African-American pastor, the Rev. Faith Green Timmons of Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, Mich. Timmons had criticized Trump for failing to keep his remarks to her congregation, as promised, nonpartisan. Trump later had his own version of that event. Our reporter Scott Detrow was there. He reported what he saw and heard, and that didn't back up Trump's account. Back then some listeners asked why NPR didn't just report that Trump was a liar.

This week that same question is being posed to NPR.

This time, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reported on Trump's fence-mending visit to the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va., the day after his inauguration. Despite his tweets comparing the intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany, Trump told his audience he is with them "a thousand percent." He also said that the media were to blame for making up the feud between him and the intelligence services. Kelly said, "It's provably not true. In that same speech out of the CIA this weekend, Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration."

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."

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."

Oreskes acknowledges that other news organizations have made a different decision, most notably The New York Times, where he worked for more than two decades. The Times uses the word "lie" in this headline about Trump's repeated claim that millions of votes cast by immigrants who are in this country illegally prevented him from winning the popular vote.

As the Times and NPR have reported, there is no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Let's talk about what to call a fact that is not a fact. President Trump made a string of statements at the CIA over the weekend. Our correspondent Mary Louise Kelly used this language to describe some of them.


MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: It's provably not true. That's what he said, and that is false. Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration.

GREENE: But Mary Louise did not use the word lie. And many listeners asked why. To talk about why, Steve Inskeep sat down with Mary Louise as well as Michael Oreskes. He's the senior vice president who is in charge of news here at NPR.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Good morning to you both.


KELLY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, what exactly did people ask you?

KELLY: Well, to set the stage a bit further, on day one of his presidency, Donald Trump went to the CIA and delivered a remarkable speech - remarkable in part because he said several things that were not true. So in our reporting on that speech, we described them as you just heard there - as untrue claims, false denials, et cetera, which led to my inbox exploding with people writing to say, why are you pussyfooting around? Why not just say he lied?

INSKEEP: Just to be clear, pussyfooting was a phrase that someone...

KELLY: A direct quote that, I think, a couple of people tweeted at me.

INSKEEP: OK. Why not say he lied?

KELLY: So this has prompted me to go actually look up the word lie in the Oxford English Dictionary. And here's the definition. I'll read it - (reading) 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...

INSKEEP: And leave you...

KELLY: ...With publicly available fact.

INSKEEP: ...Leave the listener to make their own conclusions.

Mike Oreskes, how much discussion has there been about this word, lie?

ORESKES: There's been quite a bit. And of course, it began during the campaign. And we at NPR have decided not to use the word lie in most situations. And there's really two reasons. One of them is the one that Mary Louise cited. But to me, there's a second reason - and maybe more important. 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.

And there's the really important work we do, the important work that Mary Louise does. And by the way, I want to just interject. I thought she handled this perfectly. And it's really important that people understand that these aren't our opinions. These aren't just thoughts we happen to have. These are things we've established through our journalism, through our reporting. And I don't want to do anything that gets in the way of people seeing that reporting. And I think the minute you start branding things with a word like lie, you push people away from you.

KELLY: I would add, though, that this is something that reporters in our newsroom are wrestling with.

ORESKES: Totally.

KELLY: I will count myself in there - because we are trained as journalists to pick our words carefully. We are also trained to call a spade a spade.

INSKEEP: Correct. And I want to make clear a couple of points here. First, you're not saying the word lie is banned from NPR.


INSKEEP: There's no word that is banned...


INSKEEP: ...From NPR News. We use the words that we use and the best words that we possibly can. The second observation is that some news organizations are clearly making a different choice.


INSKEEP: We've had Dean Baquet of The New York Times, the editor of The New York Times, on the program. And they used it this very week, also referring to the president. The headline was "Trump Repeats An Election Lie To Top Lawmakers."

What do you think of their choice?

ORESKES: I don't want to edit their newspaper any more than I would want my friend Dean deciding what we should do at NPR. I think one of the beauties of the First Amendment is we can make different choices. I don't think there's any question that Mary Louise and her stories and other NPR stories have clearly communicated the facts in this case. And I have a lot of respect for our audiences. And I think they understand what's happening.

And to the other point Mary Louise made, it's for each of us to make our own judgments about what we think the motives have been here. 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.

INSKEEP: Is this a situation where, as reporters, we need to note when things are false, whoever says them...

KELLY: Of course.

INSKEEP: ...As best we can determine it but do that in a matter-of-fact way and pay attention more to what people actually do?

KELLY: My job, as a beat reporter here, is to be intensely familiar with everything that's been said, every document that's out there that's publicly available so that we can correct the record so that when the president of the United States comes out and says, for example, I never maligned the CIA, I can quickly, on deadline, point to where, in fact, he did malign the CIA. And I can point that out and then try to advance the record by adding more facts the next day, calling sources and trying to advance it bit by bit so that the facts add up.

INSKEEP: NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly and NPR editorial director Mike Oreskes - thanks to both of you.

ORESKES: Steve, thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.