By Brian LaMuraglia and Kevin Coughlin
Should news organizations call out politicians as liars?
The New York Times thinks so, and has been accusing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump of lying with increasing frequency.
But the editorial director of National Public Radio considers that a mistake.
“I think from the beginning we made a decision that we were going to keep our focus on the facts, not judging candidates, but on the factual basis of what they were saying or doing,” Michael Oreskes said Friday at Sustain Local, a journalism conference sponsored by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
“That’s become a controversial decision, interestingly.”
When Merrill Brown, director of the university’s School of Communication and Media, asked a ballroom full of journalists and entrepreneurs how many thought NPR was doing an outstanding job covering the campaign, only about one third of the hands went up.
(Disclosure: Morristown Green is a member of The Local News Lab, a project of the center and the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.)
Last month the Times described contradictions in Trump’s tax policy as a “trillion-dollar lie.”
“I think we owed it to our readers to just call it out for what it was,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told NPR’s Morning Edition. Regarding Trump falsely insisting for years that President Obama was born outside the United States, Baquet added it “would almost be illiterate to have not called the birther thing a lie.”
Oreskes, a former Times editor and Associated Press executive, told the conference that “in the long run, trying to remain focused on the role of presenting reliable, verified, authenticated information that everybody can agree upon is still the most important role we can play in any discussion.”
As an example, he cited an eyewitness account from NPR reporter Scott Detrow, who juxtaposed how Trump characterized a gathering at Bethel United Methodist Church in Flint, MI, with what actually occurred inside the church. The reporter let listeners draw their own conclusions.
‘THEY KNOW EXACTLY WHO THIS GUY IS’
Oreskes estimated that NPR’s 264 stations and public television stations together attract 70 million visitors per month to their websites.
Although he’s never seen a more complex, hard-to-cover race during four decades in the news business, he differed with media maven Jeff Jarvis, who suggested the press could have done more to expose Trump’s character issues.
While “one or two” broadcast outlets helped Trump with excessive early coverage, he said, “I don’t believe that the Trump success is an illustration of the failure of journalism. When you talk to Trump supporters, they know exactly who this guy is. They know. That’s not what this election is about.”
The media and the GOP both failed to grasp the discontent among “lower income, often religious, often rural” voters who comprise Trump’s base, he said.
“They are not well understood or represented in American newsrooms,” Oreskes said.
And then there is the power of the Tea Party.
“People were caught by surprise early on that. And clearly we didn’t adapt enough to that in the presidential race. The Republican party has spent years trying to keep that Tea Party base from controlling the Republican presidential race.
“This was basically the failure of a Republican strategy to run to the right and to the Tea Party in midterm elections, and to the middle in presidential years. That’s completely collapsed on them this year. Lots of people didn’t see that coming,” Oreskes said.
But the major issue for journalism is economics, he said.
“How are we going to sustain the boots on the ground to do the kind of reporting that the country needs,” locally and around the world, he asked, to applause.
DEATHS IN THE FAMILY
Their van was hit by a rocket propelled grenade during a Taliban ambush in Helmand Province. An Afghan general had considered the road to be safe.
Gilkey was among the most experienced correspondents in Afghanistan, having visited more than 15 times, noted Oreskes. The photojournalist’s last assignment was to report what was happening after U.S. troops withdrew from the country.
The network is determined to honor the two men by continuing their work.
“Most of us at NPR still struggling with the loss,” said Oreskes. “But we’re also recognizing out commitment to international journalism is all the more important because of it.”