Poor Timing To Investigate A Trump Attack Line : NPR Ombudsman The NPR story came almost a month after Trump's attack and less than a week before the election.
NPR logo Poor Timing To Investigate A Trump Attack Line

Poor Timing To Investigate A Trump Attack Line

Hillary Clinton spoke to the audience during the second presidential debate. Saul Loeb/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Saul Loeb/AP

Hillary Clinton spoke to the audience during the second presidential debate.

Saul Loeb/AP

During the second presidential candidate debate, on Oct. 9, Republican candidate Donald Trump singled out one of his guests, a woman named Kathy Shelton.

Here's Trump: "One of the women, who is a wonderful woman, at 12 years old, was raped — at 12. Her client she represented, got him off. And she's seen laughing on two separate occasions — laughing at the girl who was raped. Kathy Shelton, that young woman, is here with us tonight."

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, was the lawyer he referred to as laughing at the victim.

On Thursday, Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep revisited the claim in depth through interviews with Shelton, the magazine writer whose taped interview with Clinton was the source of Trump's claim, the local prosecutor and Shelton's current lawyer. The piece also included audio from the original tape recording. The story presents evidence that Clinton was not laughing at the victim, but at how the case played out. Shelton continues to see it differently.

A number of listeners and readers cried foul about the timing of the story. Ryan Fenton-Strauss, of La Mirada, Calif., summed up a thought expressed by some emailers, writing to my office that running the story was "irresponsible," given that it came "a few days before the election (long after the second debate when one could argue relevancy). While the facts of the story support the notion that Hillary Clinton was just doing her job upholding our treasured concept of 'due process', the emotions of the story pit Hillary Clinton as psychological tormentor of a rape victim."

As other listeners pointed out, PolitiFact and other news outlets had already declared Trump's claims largely false or presented detailed examinations of the facts involved.

I asked the newsroom about the piece and why it ran now, instead of three weeks ago, immediately after the debate. Sarah Gilbert, the executive producer of Morning Edition, responded in an email:

"We set out to shed light on what has, up until now, only been a talking point. We wanted to give the issue the kind of careful, detailed examination that would yield real insight from the people who were there at the time. To produce that kind of journalism takes serious man hours. In truth, we would have liked to bring it to air sooner, but the demands of covering a very lively election are myriad."

She told me in a subsequent email that "There was no internal discussion about whether it was too close to the election — because we don't consider in-depth reporting of an issue, through which we seek to correct false information, to have a sell-by date on it."

From my point of view, the piece should not have run when it did. I do see value in NPR doing its own reporting, and not relying on that of others, even when it comes to the same conclusions. Moreover, there's great value in hearing from witnesses directly. And fact-checking is an important part of NPR's reportorial mission.

But the report's timing troubles me. If NPR could not turn around the piece immediately after the second debate, it should have shelved it instead of prolonging a campaign talking point that already had long been proven false. The headline, in particular — "The Story Behind A Campaign Line: Did Clinton Laugh At A Rape Victim?" — did just that, by suggesting that there was a possibility that Clinton did indeed laugh at the victim when the reporting did not support that.

I'm also bothered by one other element of the story. The victim's recollection of what happened has changed over time, as sometimes happens. The version she told Inskeep was different from details in the court record at the time.

Gilbert told me: "We did not check the different versions of Shelton's account against the one she gave us, or attempt to re-litigate the circumstances of her rape in our story. That she was raped is not in question, and Steve made it clear that Shelton has changed her story over the years. At the close of the piece, he focuses on the facts that ARE known, and in the process delivers on the aim of our reporting: to get to the bottom how Clinton represented the defendant and how she talked about it afterward."

Nonetheless, I believe the on-air and online pieces should have noted that her recollection of the events has changed. But that oversight is minor compared to the decision to run the story five days before the election—or four days, counting the posting to NPR's Facebook page this morning.