NPR Panders to Audience at Indictment Time: Sorry If We Haven't Been Anti-Trump Enough!

April 4th, 2023 1:45 PM

On Monday night's All Things Considered newscast, co-host Mary Louise Kelly covered the indictment of Trump as a serious conundrum for the media. She was pandering to the leftist audience, angered that Trump will probably get away with all this again, that he's just milking this indictment for fame and fortune and another Republican nomination for president. Kelly brought on NPR vice president and executive editor Terence Samuel to think out loud about how the coverage might disappoint the audience. 

Samuel promised they would "flood the zone," as they say. "And what we have now is we have two reporters in the courtroom. We have two reporters outside the courtroom because the world is completely different now, and we will have to update that story as it's happening online in our newscast....It is constant and ongoing. We want to be authoritative. We want to be complete. And we're going to be relentless."

Now for conservative critics of NPR, Terence Samuel is infamous for proclaiming in 2020 that the Hunter Biden laptop was "not really" a story, a "pure distraction" that NPR shouldn't cover. They never wanted to be "complete" on that subject. None of that came up in this conversation, obviously. 


Well, they're relent on some things. They won't let Trump speak live on public radio, as Kelly underlined "We will not be airing any remarks the former president may make live...Why not?" Samuel said Trump "has been known to manipulate these events to his political advantage.  And that's fine, except that's not what we owe our audience." No, NPR's audience wants Trump to suffer, not take advantage. 

KELLY: With the benefit of hindsight, what lessons has NPR learned? What have you learned as one of our newsroom leaders, looking back on how we've covered this particular individual since 2016?

SAMUEL: I think it's fair to say there have been mistakes, and there have been missteps. I think they mostly fall into the category of us doing things the way they have always been done and not recognizing how different candidate Trump, President Trump, now former President Trump was on the political stage and how he essentially transformed our politics into something different. And so the biggest lesson is that we should not deliver information on the assumption that people know exactly how to make use of that information. Part of our jobs is fact-checking our politics and our politicians who have made it kind of a business model to be not just disingenuous but completely deceptive for political purposes.

KELLY: Is fact-checking enough? I mean, because we have been doing that. I've done plenty of live coverage of political events these last several years where we were fact-checking in real time, whether in the broadcast, whether on our website. Is that enough?

TERENCE SAMUEL: Is that enough? A fair question. I think the answer to that question depends on what your aim is. If your aim is to help people understand what is going on in their politics and their life, it is an essential part of it, and we have to keep at it. If it is to deter politicians from doing this again, then no, it's not enough. The question becomes what else do we need to do? And I think that is one of the things that we continue to work on.

PS: The last time NPR brought on Terence Samuel to share opinions on journalism, it was on June 3, 2021, to discuss coverage of social issues a year after George Floyd's death. Hunter Biden didn't come up then, either. The liberal journalists explained away the need for any balance or objectivity: 

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Journalists are human. I mean, we all have opinions. We all have biases. We all bring baggage to every story we cover. How do y'all think about, as you run a newsroom, what balance looks like in this moment, what being objective looks like? Is it even worth striving for knowing we're never going to get there? Sara.

SARA JUST, PBS NewsHour: Yeah, I think that you're absolutely right. There's been a deeper understanding and deeper conversation about how much our lived experiences play into the reporting that we do. And there's no question that it does for each and every one of us in different ways. And I think that lived experience we especially highlight now is valuable, whether it's race or gender or the challenges. I don't think people with those lived experiences have to carry the burden, though, of being the only ones to report on it by any means. And so that's something that we are always balancing.

KELLY: And to the question of balance specifically, Sara, the way that big news shows have gotten programmed for forever is like, if you have a Republican on, you should probably also get a Democrat on and give them roughly the same amount of time, and bingo, we're balanced. How do you think about that in this moment?

JUST: Yeah. I think we don't need to go find someone to come on our program to say Black lives don't matter, but really understanding the reporting on the community must include people with all different views. And so when we talk to people in a community where a protest has happened, we talk to people who participated in the protest. We talk to people who did not participate in the protests as much as we can. And so that that kind of balance informs our work, even though it doesn't necessarily lead to an actual debate.

KELLY: Terry, how are you thinking about this question of being objective, being balanced? What does that look like in 2021?

TERRY SAMUEL: I think the balance objectivity axis has kind of slipped in significance in the work we do. I think the balanced objectivity question is mostly a political one, and that's about argument and debate. I think what we need is to chase the whole story. The whole story gets you to the truth, and it's not a matter of representing just opposite voices, but more voices and excluding the voices that are just pure disinformation. [You know, like Hunter Biden critics.]

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Dawn, I'll give you the last word.

DAWN RHODES, Block Club Chicago: Sure. In terms of objectivity, I think that we all mean well when we talk about approaching stories with objectivity. I think the intent behind it is OK. But I think that really glosses over who's being served by these very traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality. You know, our approach to it isn't so much objectivity in the way that we traditionally understand it. It's about being fair.

I think that when we start our stories from a place of understanding that a situation is inherently unfair and it's inequitable and that certain people here, they don't have as much opportunity to tell their story, I think that that helps us achieve a little bit of balance because we're starting from a sense of things are not balanced.