NPR logo Here Lies A Use Of 'Lied'

NPR Ombudsman

Here Lies A Use Of 'Lied'

Donald Trump Jr. is interviewed by host Sean Hannity on the Fox News Channel television program the day he posted a series of email messages to Twitter showing him accepting help from what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid his father's campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Richard Drew/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Richard Drew/AP

Donald Trump Jr. is interviewed by host Sean Hannity on the Fox News Channel television program the day he posted a series of email messages to Twitter showing him accepting help from what was described to him as a Russian government effort to aid his father's campaign with damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Richard Drew/AP

On Here and Now Wednesday, sharp listeners caught NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik flatly stating that Donald Trump Jr. "knowingly lied" in July 2016 when asked about contact between his father's presidential campaign and Russian figures.

The words jumped out because NPR until this point has been studiously avoiding using the word "lie" to characterize the statements of President Trump and some of his associates "when they are at odds with evidence to the contrary," as NPR's Two-Way blog put it. I wrote about the pros and cons of the policy in a January column, after NPR heard from hundreds of listeners and readers who were unhappy about NPR's reticence.

Folkenflik told me he cleared the use of the word with editors in advance.

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, said the policy on use of the word has not changed. "As we have said before, the word was never banned. It just needs to be used appropriately," he said in an email.

NPR had cited two main reasons for not using the word up until this point, even though some other news organizations, notably The New York Times, had begun to use it sparingly. First, the Webster's New World College Dictionary's, definition of "to lie" is "to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive." NPR editors have argued that it was not possible to know or prove whether misstatements by Trump and his entourage were made with such intent. In addition, newsroom leaders said that using such a loaded word would potentially put off some listeners and readers. (To be clear, while NPR has avoided using the word "lie" until now, it has reported when statements from the president, his aides and family members differ from the facts.)

In this case, Memmott wrote, "We applied our thinking from before. If there is clear evidence that a person knows something to be untrue, then intent is no longer an issue," adding, the emails released by Donald Trump Jr. "make it hard to argue that he could have believed some of the things he later said were true," a point Folkenflik also made on Here and Now.

NPR listeners and readers who questioned just when NPR would find it appropriate to use the word now have an answer — supporting documents could be one important factor.