NPR Must Do Better In The Age of Trump
My ideas get a lot more exposure from my drive-by Twitter “bromides,” as Scott Simon caustically deemed my tweets today, but this topic deserves a full post.
I guess I can be proud that I actually inspired vitriol from the nicest guy in public radio. After all, the enforced “niceness” of NPR coverage as they go about getting their senses of seriously not-at-all nice things is one of their most profound flaws as a news organization. Niceness clouds their experiences and cripples their descriptions. (Anyway, everyone hates journalists, so at least journalists get to hate media critics, amateur or professional.)
This is going to be a long post including a lot of things I’ve been thinking over the last few months. It has two primary purposes:
- I’ll debunk NPR’s argument that journalists should not use the word “lie” to describe false statements because identifying a lie requires knowledge of intent. I’ll also demonstrate that alternatives to the “lie” explanation for Trump’s false statements are terrifying and news-worthy.
- I’ll adduce evidence that NPR normalizes Trump, and frequently does so by failing to report many crucial facts in their coverage of him and his administration.
The Oreskes Doctrine
In case you didn’t know, NPR news director Michael Oreskes went on record bravely defending the value of facts and truth, not exactly a controversial opinion among NPR listeners. But he explicitly abdicates any duty to call a “lie” a “lie.” This is the ditch that 21st century journalism drove into when it naively tried too hard to pursue the shibboleth of objectivity in the face of half a nation (or more) of know-nothings.
Oreskes’ excuse for this editorial rule is that in order to call a demonstrably false statement a “lie” we must know the intent of the speaker, which one can only know if one possesses the awesome power of telepathy. This pusillanimous definition of “lie” suddenly limits the use of the word to novels and confessions, when the authors of lies take explicit responsibility for them.
Many NPR staffers have doubled down, as they love to say, on this simplistic argument via Twitter. Whether they do this through sincere belief or organizational obeisance I can’t say: nobody from a profession whose life-blood is leaks has ever provided me with any inside information, anonymous or otherwise, about the true moods & opinions of NPR staffers on this topic.
Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
I favor a more robust use of “lie” for a number of reasons. The first is the actual definition of the word “lie” in dictionaries not written by Michael Oreskes.
Mr. Webster’s word zoo provides two relevant definitions. The first does require intent. Maybe that’s where Mike stopped reading. The second definition is this:
2. to create a false or misleading impression.
Whatever Trump’s intention, he certainly creates false and misleading impressions through his bizarre utterances.
Here are the second and third definitions of “lie” at Dictionary.com:
2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture.
3. an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.
Both seem to fit the bill nicely, but especially number 3.
Trump makes a lot of false statements. The Washington Post helpfully counted how many different separate “false or misleading” statements the insane-clown-in-chief has made in his first 100 days. The total is four hundred and sixty-nine. Imagine the total if they had counted every time he lied instead of each separate lie! Then add in the lies of his hench-people! That sum is a big number that, I feel certain, has no precedent in American politics. Hell, I doubt it has a precedent in the office where Bernie Madoff made his sales pitches. Statistically, some of that hoard of falsehoods must be lies. But NPR, of course, won’t even discuss them in aggregate or in theory – other than the discussion about their refusing to discuss it.
If Not A Lie Then What?
For this section I’ll pretend that Oreskes is my boss, too, and thus will treat the word “lie” the same way cowardly wizards in the magical world of the Harry Potterverse treat the word “Voldemort.”
Contra my previous section, let’s accept for the moment the official public NPR position that without a confession no human can possibly know if a false statement is unambiguously a The Word That Cannot Be Said. It still theoretically allows one to speculate on the likelihood of any given false statement being a fully class A official and intentional Word That Cannot Be Said. But such discussion is also forbidden. This emulates the way that even criticizing capital blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan is legally also a form of blasphemy. (Is there a head-getting-chopped-off emoji?)
But, okay, there’s still a lot to talk about here without accusing Trump of the l-word (sorry, Showtime, there’s a new l-word in town!) or even speculating about it. The only alternative explanation for Trump’s repeated false and misleading statements is that there is something very, very wrong with him. He might be terribly ignorant, terribly stupid, terribly demented, and/or terribly delusional. Those are the only choices. They are all really bad and dangerous.
Trump doing the l-word all the time is terrifying. The alternative explanation for his blizzard of false statements is maybe even more horrible. So why isn’t NPR talking about both all the time? I’m not joking here. The tapestry of Trump’s false statements, as opposed to some particular false statement, is the biggest, scariest story in the country, whatever the available explanations.
Wee Report, You Decide
(“Wee” as in tiny, as in abbreviated reports that omit crucial information.)
The other argument that Oreskes makes is that it’s NPR’s job to provide the facts and the listener’s job to be their own personal decider about what the facts mean. A nice person recently happened upon one of my Twitterborne nano-Jeremiads against Oreskes et al and replied thusly:
I gave her a brief answer at the time which I will expand upon here.
First of all “We Report, You Decide” was one of the ironic slogans of FOX News since its founding days. The other one was “Fair and Balanced.” So that happened.
But sure, these sentiments are as laudable in the abstract as they are laughable in the context of advertising the world’s most successful propaganda organ and sexual-harassment fantasy camp.
But does NPR give us the facts? I mean, sure, they give us some facts. In fact they give us a lot of facts. Even I often accuse All Things Considered of considering too goddam many things!
But do they give us the facts we need to make informed decisions about important things? In particular did they give us the facts we needed about Trump during the campaign? And did we get useful facts about his cabinet nominees? Are we getting good facts now on a day-to-day basis? Anyone remotely familiar with my Twitter feed over the last few months already knows my answer, which is a resounding “Hell No!”
It is my contention that NPR shies away from certain kinds of information that I and many other paying listeners consider to be vitally important. I’ll speculate about the reasons for this later, but first I’ll adduce some specific examples from the Trump era:
Joe Arpaio & His Pardon (Update from 8/27/17) On 8/26 Weekend Edition Saturday did a two-way about Trump’s monstrous pardon of the truly villainous Joe Arpaio. It both failed to convey the many gruesome and easily available facts revealing Arpaio’s insane, anti-government, sadistic character and failed to note the scary implications for future investigations, including the Russia investigation, of Trump’s not-at-all-normal action. That evening Michel Martin and Domenico Montanaro did a two-way that similarly ignored Arpaio’s grotesque malefactions but at least it not only mentioned, but also took seriously the pardon’s implications for the Russia investigation. On Sunday, by which time there had been ample opportunity to prepare a complete piece about Arpaio, the pardon was only mentioned in a two-way about politics that discussed neither Arpaio’s history of sadism nor the implications for the Russia investigation. I don’t know if this represents a difference in editorial attitudes between Morning/Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.
Trump rallies were often mosh-pits of disgusting behavior on the part of Trump supporters. Trump himself encouraged this, dramatically breaking with John McCain’s precedent of actually scolding his supporters when they acted unreasonably at his rallies. NPR had a lot of coverage of Trump election rallies by staffers like Asma Khalid and Sarah McCammon. It’s great that they focused on what Trump was saying, but they omitted or gave minimal coverage to the unfortunate antics of Trump supporters. In one case I was reading the live tweets from a college professor attending a particularly disgusting rally that NPR also covered. It was like two different worlds. Why leave out the ugly stuff? Are NPR staffers suffering the thing from that horror movie where bad things only happens when their eyes are closed?
Trump’s Supporters are 50% deplorable, at least as described accurately by Hillary Clinton. But NPR and many other journalists clearly saw her comment as out-of-bounds. And, sure, maybe if she’d been running against Mitty Milquetoast Romney it would have been mean by comparison, but, given Trump’s daily provocative racist lies about immigrants, and the really vile stuff promulgated by Trump’s supporters, her non-false statement was positively genteel. She could have called them “a nauseating dumpster-fire of fact-free hate-zombies” and been nearly as correct.
But NPR would have you believe Trump supporters are just, you know, wonderful folks. The other day they were attempting to gingerly approach the concept of white supremacists in America by interviewing an articulate former white-supremacist. He had a lot of interesting things to say, but I found this comment by his interviewer, David Greene, more telling:
“Covering this last election I met so many supporters of president Trump who were not full of hate, I mean, who were just lovely, lovely people who were parents and just were looking out for their families. But was there rhetoric in this campaign that was somehow speaking directly to some of the kids you’re talking about?”
The first sentence is just wildly naive. I’m astonished a working journalist could take the people he met at face value to this degree. I think it’s more likely that, as an adult human being not raised in a Skinner Box, he knows that people who are superficially lovely and polite can harbor some horrible prejudices and glaring misapprehensions. So why put Trump voters on a pedestal like this? Why posit two neat, unrelated boxes with lovely people in the one and ugly rhetoric in the other?
Like most, I have friends and relatives of varying degrees of loveliness who voted for Trump. They all present pretty well in day to day society, but I know which ones have sickening reasons for voting for Trump. (SPOILER ALERT: it’s pretty much all of them.)
Finally I want to mention the endless vox populi pieces where often poorly-informed Trump supporters sit around, usually in some folksy just-folks diner, and spout rarely challenged FOX News talking points. These kinds of reports sprang up on NPR programs like mushrooms after a rainstorm in the wake of Trump’s election. It was like NPR suddenly noticed the existence of lower middle class white people and are on a mission to make sure listeners notice them too. (Nothing remotely analogous occurred after Obama’s elections.) The problem is that these people all know they’re on the radio so they aren’t likely to say how they really feel about certain sensitive topics.
My favorite of these annoying, redundant reports ended with one brief point of light when something happened that perfectly embodies this point and my next point:
Another man approached me on his way out of this event, someone who had not spoken out during the breakfast. He leaned in and whispered to me, off-mic – and I’m quoting now – “there are two words you haven’t heard this morning,” he said, “narcissism and lies.” So obviously very provocative, I wanted him to explain what he meant by that. He said he didn’t want to get into it, and he just walked away.
Which Brings Us To Trump’s Psychological Health. Donald Trump is a delusional, sociopathic malignant narcissist. Don’t take my word for it, take the word of my board-certified practicing psychiatrist (that means M.D., folks) spouse. Okay, be like that, don’t take her word for it. But do take the word of a bunch of prominent psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers who are circumventing one of their own professional ethics codes by publicly diagnosing Trump because they believe their ethical duty to report is more important than the outmoded “Goldwater Rule.”
(FYI “Duty to Report” is the obligation doctors and therapists have to break sacred doctor-patient privacy because, for example, a child is in danger of violence. It’s not comforting that it applies to the President’s mental condition.)
If you use the search feature on NPR’s website to find a story about Trump’s mental health you’ll be looking for a long time. It’s been mentioned in passing by a few interview subjects, and that’s about it.
A president’s mental health is pretty important. Why isn’t NPR talking about it, even abstractly, when there’s plenty of discussion of it in magazines and in other media outlets?
Kim Jong Trump’s History is a haunted landfill of outrageous misbehavior, both personal and professional, but it was never thoroughly plumbed by NPR during the campaign. Now anything before the election seems to be a distant, irrelevant memory to them. His fraudulent “university” didn’t go away because he got elected, but you won’t hear much more about it on NPR. It’s like once he became president NPR could only talk about what he’s doing now. Guys, his backstory is a devil’s playground designed by Baz Luhrmann! Go nuts! We’re VERY interested. This devastating article is based mostly on information available before the election.
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, is an interesting person, but you wouldn’t know it from NPR’s coverage of her. Sure, they talked about her past support of charter schools, but holy cow they left out a lot! Did you know her brother is Erik “spelled the German way, why?” Prince who heads up a massive private military force that would make a James Bond movie villain green with envy? You may remember it as “Blackwater,” the company that America paid zillions to during the Iraq occupation to enhance our presence without inflating our official boots-on-the-ground numbers. NPR, which must know this, felt it was irrelevant in all of the DeVos reporting when she was nominated. Blackwater has since rebranded itself with a somehow even creepier name, “Academi.” UPDATE 7/24/17: NPR doubled down on not mentioning this. They did a lengthy interview with brother Erik and never mentioned his sister. Also failed again to note his militant Christian-adjacent beliefs.
Oh, also, did you know a bunch of DeVos’ money (she’s super-rich, natch) comes from the Amway pyramid scheme? Well if you do know it’s not because you heard it on NPR. There’s plenty more that is directly relevant to her new job, like her support for gay conversion therapy and other extreme Christian attitudes, but, I guess NPR figures we should find that stuff out elsewhere for some reason.
Greg Gianforte, everybody’s favorite journalist body-slammer, gained an extremely high profile for both his violence and his Montana special election. NPR produced 43 stories that mentioned him, and that total includes a number that were entirely about him or the Montana race. They never thought to mention that’s he’s a die-hard moronic creationist who believes man hunted with dinosaurs. He even gave large amounts of money for a creation museum in Montana, also never mentioned. This is especially ironic because Montana is full of fossils and geology that utterly and obviously disprove creationist claims.
The Mercer Family is another seemingly off-limits topic for NPR. Until there was a major story about them recently in The New Yorker the name “Mercer” had never been uttered on-air on any NPR program. Turns out they’re kind of a HUGE DEAL and SUPER CRAZY, but so far only Dave Davies has talked about them on Fresh Air in an interview with the writer of the New Yorker article. UPDATE May 26, 2017 Jim Zarolli finally did a 4 minute piece on Mercer. It focused mainly on his wealth building and normalized him as merely very conservative. It never mentioned the family’s religious beliefs or any of the other really bizarre stuff found in the New Yorker article.
Ben Carson is an unqualified joke, but he was treated as a not-totally-weird HUD secretary nominee by NPR.
Rick Perry makes Ben Carson look like a nuclear physicist/unstoppable 30-season Jeopardy champion. Again they treated him with far more respect than he deserved. His predecessor was an actual nuclear physicist. Perry can’t even pronounce the word “nookyooler.”
Jeff Sessions is radioactive in the racism bandwidth, but NPR treated him far too well. I did a separate post about that so I won’t add more here. I’ll just say it involved the tortured, NPR-invented minimizing phrase “alleged racial statements.”
Trump’s Recent NRA Speech was covered with stories and many NPR News bulletin items. In most (or all – I have only listened to most) of them they failed to mention that the NRA gave Trump’s campaign $30 million. I feel like that’s news I could have used. I tweeted at the reporter covering the event, Lisa Hagen, asking why she kept leaving this out, but she never got back to me.
This isn’t even close to a complete list of NPR’s under-reporting and over-normalizing reporting.
Why Does NPR Do This?
I am a rationalist. I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, for that way lies madness. I will constrain myself to the believable before I list a few conspiracy-ish ideas.
Honestly I think NPR seeks to be both nice and objective. They want to be the grown-ups in the room even as they sometimes deliver the news employing a tone and syntax that would better serve “Goodnight Moon.” This causes them to self-censor either at the reporter level, the producer level, or both. That’s my theory, and I corroborate it with my many posts about their habits of expression, such as constantly asking for a “sense” of something rather than going after the thing itself.
A more paranoid interpretation is that they are worried about Republicans cutting their funding if they seem the least bit biased. As Stephen Colbert correctly stated, reality has a well-known liberal bias, and the fake news phenomenon renders this ever truer. This makes it pretty damned tricky to stay both accurate and objective to the Republican observer. If this is the reason, they need to stop worrying about it. Republicans hate them already, and that will never change.
Even more paranoid, and which I do not believe, is the idea I’ve heard that hefty donations from the likes of the Koch brothers come with quid-pro-quo agreements enjoining them from robust investigation of certain topics.
If you’ve made it this far you are either an NPR staffer wanting to know what is being said about them or a serious NPR listener. If you are a staffer I ask that you message me on twitter if you have comments. I will keep them anonymous.
If you are a dedicated listener I would also like comments, and I ask that you tweet a link to this story or retweet my original tweet linking to it. I also ask that you use social media to hold NPR to a higher standard than the one they are currently holding themselves to.
Their timid, normalizing coverage of the Trump campaign helped get him elected, instantly turning all of American history into a joke.
Let’s just hope the maladroit monster they empowered, the very avatar of America’s moral, educational, and, I’m forced to conclude, journalistic failures, doesn’t turn Seoul into a smoking ruin.
If you want a more academic and generic perspective on the failure of the press to properly communicate about Trump, read this fantastic Twitter thread.
I remain, @airbagmoments.