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From The Bully Pulpit To The Radio

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, in Houston.
Eric Gay
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, in Houston.

The 2018 midterm elections are less than a week away. Jammed into that short span, President Trump has scheduled another ten of his usually raucous rallies in support of Republican candidates.

If they are like his rallies so far, they will include name-calling, falsehoods, and campaign promises that seemingly cannot be kept. Covering those patterns has proven challenging for all newsrooms, including NPR's, and listeners from both sides of the aisle have raised concerns and voiced frustrations about the coverage.

Listeners aren't just imagining the sheer volume of the rally sound bites. Clips of the president's most incendiary remarks at the rallies have been ubiquitous on NPR, particularly in the hourly newscasts, but also in reports on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and the other newsmagazine shows. Partly that's because the president — any president — has a bully pulpit. And NPR covers the president — any president — whether it's official presidential business or in service of other political candidates.

NPR also covered President Obama's 2014 appearances for midterm candidates. Those reports were fewer, however, since Obama did less campaigning. Trump is a much more aggressive campaigner, and makes provocative statements almost every time.

"One of things that is troubling for people is that he is omnipresent," said Robert Garcia, NPR's executive producer of newscasts. "He never stops tweeting, he never goes on vacation or goes away. It's part and parcel of who he is, that he is always present."

Garcia added, "I suspect that people are not getting a respite from this and they're weary. And for those who have a visceral reaction to him it is extremely troubling to be in a constant state of outrage."

The ethical questions for me are: Has NPR gone beyond stenography, merely reporting his words without any context or explanation? In other words, has it treated comments that clearly are not true or not actionable as such? Has the coverage unfairly given an advantage to whomever the president is stumping for? Were some of his comments covered but didn't need to be because they were gratuitous or weren't newsworthy in any way?

I shared the many emails my office has received, expressing a wide variety of concerns, with Edith Chapin, NPR's executive editor. She responded: "We don't cover the rallies live. [Reporting] some excerpts in pieces and newscasts feels like the responsible way to reflect the President's approach to the midterm campaign season."

That's an important point: NPR is playing excerpts from the rallies after evaluating their news value. It is not passing along the content wholesale as it happens, like some other news outlets have done.

But for some listeners it feels like too much, too often. I do think some of the disconnect has to do with the fact that it's radio and the news comes at you unless you turn off the radio (whereas you can skip over something you don't like in a newspaper or online). Some of the reaction also has to do with listening patterns. If you're a listener who has the radio on all day and you hear newscast after newscast with a short clip from a rally, then yes, you might think it's excessive. If you're the average NPR listener who hears just a few minutes per day, you might hear only one such clip.

Garcia's view is that "he's the president of the United States and we have to cover him. We have to cover him truthfully, though." The challenge he sees is that NPR has to be fair — "we serve the public and the public is made up of all kinds of folks" — but also truthful, and careful to avoid false equivalency.

That means going beyond stenography, of simply repeating what the president says even if it is not true. In most cases I've heard, NPR has done that. The overwhelming number of newscasts I hear are clear to correct any misinformation.

That said, they don't always follow contemporary best practices, what is known as a "truth sandwich." Essentially, that means that reporters should note first that the information they are about to hear is inaccurate or misleading, then play the clip in question, and then offer evidence as to why it is inaccurate.

That last part — share the evidence — is also key. My office is getting more emails from listeners who feel NPR is biased against the president because they hear statements like "the President said, with no evidence, that..."

In each case I've investigated, the reporting has borne out; the president was making claims that could not be supported by the facts. An example is Trump's unsupported claim that Middle Easterners (the implication being terrorists) are using the Central American migrant caravan as a cover to potentially slip into the United States. Reporters had been (and continue to be) on the scene investigating who exactly the caravan members are: migrants from several Central American countries, some of whom say they intend to seek political asylum if and when they reach the border and others who say they are coming for economic reasons.

But some listeners who are predisposed to mistrust the media — perhaps because the president keeps telling them the media can't be trusted — hear "with no evidence" as simple bias against him. Yes, it takes precious seconds of air time, which radio reporters always feel are too few, but it's my view that journalists should explain why Trump's statements are false whenever possible.

What about listener concerns that the predominance of Trump gives an unfair advantage to Republicans in the local races (or to the president's own re-election aspirations)? In general, Garcia said, the newsroom tries to be "even-handed in terms of time given to both parties."

The newscasts have indeed carried clips from Democratic rallies, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, stumping for Democratic candidates (newscasts aren't archived online so there's no link to share). The newsmagazines, too. And of course, some of the presidential clips played from local rallies are really about the president himself; he often talks more about himself and his own policies than about the candidate he is supporting.

I want to push back on the notion I've heard from some listeners that the coverage will potentially play a major influence in getting Republican candidates elected. All states have local public radio stations. The vast majority of them have local reporters covering the state races in great depth (or they have access to reports produced through statewide collaborations).

NPR's political reporting, on the other hand, is focused on helping listeners understand the general trends taking place nationwide. As a result, NPR's coverage of the races where the president has dropped in represents only a fraction of the information voters are getting about those races.

Finally, during his campaign appearances, the president often uses his bully pulpit as a bullying pulpit, letting fly derogatory nicknames for candidates he's campaigning against — and, of course, continuing his disparagement of the news media.

NPR has played many of those clips, including at noon today, when a newscast report included Trump's claim from a Wednesday night rally that "the far left media once again used tragedy to sow anger and division" and then highlighted chants of "CNN sucks."

There's a fine line between informing listeners of what exactly is said at the rallies and merely carrying his message without context. I'm not sure where that line is, in this or numerous other cases. A listener complained that this report was missing the context that two would-be pipe bombs were recently sent to CNN's newsroom. That's true, but has any listener actually forgotten that news from just a week ago? Probably not.

On the other hand, one personal insult made it into a recent Saturday newscast report previewing the president's stump for Nevada incumbent Sen. Dean Heller. It concluded:

"Heller is facing a challenge from Democratic Congresswoman Jacky Rosen. In a previous visit to the state, the president criticized Rosen, referring to her as 'Wacky Jacky.'"

Listener Joel Gottfried of Wyndmoor, Pa., wrote: "How in the world is repeating this absurd name calling 'news'"?

I asked Paul Boger, a reporter for KUNR Public Radio, in Reno, Nev., about the report, which he filed for NPR. He wrote in an email, "I feel deeply that 'absurd name calling' has no place in civil discourse."

His case for why it was nonetheless newsworthy centered on the speaker — the president of the United States — "talking about a sitting Congresswoman." Heller, he said, "has embraced the president and his agenda. Therefore, in my professional opinion, Heller has tacitly endorsed the moniker." Moreover, the Senate race has been particularly negative, with both sides calling names.

But, in retrospect, he said, the comment might better have been left for a longer piece where those nuances could be explored. He said he would likely not include it again in a short newscast piece.

I agree that including the insult felt gratuitous, at least in the context of a newscast (and would be totally valid in a longer piece). It's been a tough election season for us all, those who produce the news and those who consume it. I don't think it's pulling punches or leaving listeners with a misleading impression to skip some of the offhand insults.

Summing up: This is a president who has upended the notions of how a president behaves. Newsrooms are scrambling to keep up, and that involves not only reporting the news, but also making some sense of it. Not every decision is right — or obvious. Want to hear more perspective? Last week's It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders had a good debate about the challenges. It's worth a listen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.