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Mailbag: On Trump, And A Controversial Guest

A reporter holds images of possible Republican candidates back in February. Since then, the GOP field has narrowed slightly, but still boasts 14 contenders. i

A reporter holds images of possible Republican candidates back in February. Since then, the GOP field has narrowed slightly, but still boasts 14 contenders. Carolyn Kaster/AP hide caption

toggle caption Carolyn Kaster/AP
A reporter holds images of possible Republican candidates back in February. Since then, the GOP field has narrowed slightly, but still boasts 14 contenders.

A reporter holds images of possible Republican candidates back in February. Since then, the GOP field has narrowed slightly, but still boasts 14 contenders.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

I've heard from many listeners in recent weeks about NPR's coverage of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Many of their messages can be boiled down to one word: "Enough."

David Mislin, of Pittsburgh, Penn., wrote:

It has become all too clear that Donald Trump is running a campaign based on bigotry and hate. And yet, NPR continues to afford his campaign considerable airtime (he was the lead story on Morning Edition today, for example).

I understand, of course, that Trump is news and covering news is NPR's business. Surely, however, there must come a time when principle and ethics demand that NPR programs and its reporters cease to be a mouthpiece—even an indirect one—for Trump's bigotry. Even when NPR provides ample time for opponents of Trump to respond, by necessity it still broadcasts his views.

It is obvious that Trump thrives on the attention that his outrageous statements garner for him. As a listener, contributor, and citizen, I respectfully ask that NPR revisit its practices for covering the Trump campaign.

Jayne Lefebvre of Roswell, Ga., wrote that she is "appalled that so many news stations have constant coverage of just 'Donald Trump' in this election and this station is no exception. We know his ideas and hate-speech; why cover him every day, why cover in detail the reason he's so popular? His ideals are nothing like the ideals of openness and inclusion that NPR represents. I feel he gets plenty of coverage on Fox and other stations."

The writers are correct that NPR has devoted a good deal of airtime and web space to the Trump campaign. But I would take strong issue with the assertion that NPR is a "mouthpiece" for his views, or, that NPR should ignore him altogether and let those who are interested watch, listen or read about him at other news outlets, as many writers have suggested.

There's a qualitative difference between NPR's coverage and that of some other news organizations. NPR has yet to interview him, for one, unlike some television news outlets, where he has been heard unfiltered and at length. Instead, NPR, it seems to me, has sought to put his candidacy into context with pieces such as this one taking listeners inside a focus group of his supporters.

Moreover when a serious candidate for the presidency calls for, say, a ban on all Muslims from entering the country, that's not a story for a news organization to cede to others just because it is outrageous. Or as Politico media critic Jack Shafer wrote about calls for TV networks to also boycott Trump coverage for a week: "The more hateful and demagogic a politician the more you should cover him, right? Imagine that in January 1954, when Sen. Joe McCarthy's approval rating hit its peak, McCarthy's critics had urged the TV press to stop covering the senator for a week because all the attention was feeding the man's diseased ego and expanding his reach."

In some ways, the arguments echo the "No Notoriety" pleas following mass shootings, the argument being that the shootings will stop if the shooters know they won't be memorialized in subsequent press coverage. Trump's candidacy ultimately will succeed or fail once voters have a chance to weigh in starting in February with the Iowa caucuses and the primary in New Hampshire. Until then, it's NPR's job to pay attention. It's the same argument I made many months ago when NPR's early coverage of Bernie Sanders seemed to suggest that he had little chance of winning the Democratic nomination; that coverage has since turned around.

Could NPR pay more attention to other candidates? Absolutely. In recent weeks, Morning Edition ran a lengthy interview with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, looked at Sanders' continued focus on income inequality, even as the Republican field shifted its attention to terrorism, and examined Rand Paul's standing. All Things Considered just went on the campaign trail with Sen. Marco Rubio and earlier with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But much of the day-in day-out coverage of the Republican field, in particular, has focused on what the candidates are saying and doing in the context of Trump.

On a related topic, is it NPR's job to call Trump a "racist," as other emailers and some media critics would like? I asked Michael Oreskes, NPR's editorial director and senior vice president of news, about how he sees NPR's role. He rejects the idea that NPR, which serves an audience with wide-ranging political views, needs to label Trump, or anyone else, for that matter.

"Our job is to help you understand this phenomenon," he said, adding, "It's not our job to say that Donald Trump is a 'mendacious racist'," using a label that BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told his reporters was fair game. "It's our job to give you the material to decide what you think about that and if you believe he's a mendacious racist that's your call."

However, he said, NPR should be very clear to say so when a candidate makes a false statement: "We don't have to tiptoe around knowing that something's not true or the guy has said something false."

To that end, Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, this week issued this reminder to the newsroom: "If the evidence shows that a claim clearly doesn't add up, we don't need to qualify with a 'critics contend' or a 'some say.' State what is known and how we've reached that conclusion (for example, 'an NPR search of news accounts and police records found no evidence to support the claim').

Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin recently explored this topic, as well, with Oreskes and others; the conversation can be found online.

A Controversial Guest

I heard from many people after Media Matters for America, which calls itself a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media," wrote a blog post objecting to a guest on the Dec. 10 Diane Rehm Show (which had a guest host, Melissa Ross, that day). Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, was one of four guests invited to discuss the day's topic: legal battles over parenting and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

Media Matters wrote that NPR (which distributes the show but does not produce it) gave Sprigg "a national platform to peddle misinformation about same-sex parenting." The organization Faithful America also sent an email blast that said: "Tell NPR: Don't let anti-gay hate group speak for Christians."

In the last 45 seconds of the program, as Ross was focused on wrapping up, Sprigg said that "most orthodox Christians" believe that "engaging in homosexual conduct is contrary to the will of God," a claim that depends on the murky definition of "orthodox Christians." (See this May 2015 Pew Research Center poll looking at Americans' attitudes over whether their religious beliefs are in conflict with homosexuality.) But as I read the transcript, the show's other guests forcefully pushed back against Sprigg's other claims at pretty much every turn.

I asked Rehm about the guest booking. Her view (with which I agree): "I certainly don't see that there's a problem having someone like that on the program." Where the show erred, she said, "was we did not use a clear identifier [for Sprigg] other than the title of his organization." She added, "We have to do a better job of being more careful about identification."

Where's The Best-Seller List?

Finally, this from Jason Dobkin, our department's fall intern:

Chris Sherman, from St. Louis, Mo., wrote to ask: "What happened to the weekly best-seller lists, on the books site?"

I spoke with Ellen Silva, NPR's books editor, about the missing list. She told me that the feature wasn't as popular as they'd hoped it would be in terms of site traffic, and that the numbers were fairly low. She said it took about 10 hours of work to put it together each week, and her team decided that time could be better spent working on other projects.

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