NPR And The Word 'Liar': Intent Is Key : The Two-Way President Trump's statements that aren't true challenge many newsrooms. NPR will report what it can verify, says news chief Michael Oreskes.
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NPR And The Word 'Liar': Intent Is Key

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NPR And The Word 'Liar': Intent Is Key

NPR And The Word 'Liar': Intent Is Key

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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.

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