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The spectacle of Trump in court

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
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Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Covering Trump

NPR announced to its audience this week that it intends to separate itself from other national news media in the coverage of the criminal indictment of former President Donald Trump.

To that end, they didn't broadcast Trump's post-arraignment speech live and they offered listeners a full menu of other news stories. But getting away from the Trump media circus is easier said than done.

The news media frenzy started in earnest on Monday as Trump left his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida in a motorcade to travel to an airport, fly to New York and ride in another motorcade to Trump Tower. Several observers likened the press coverage to the O.J. Simpson car chase.

All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly did a five-minute interview with NPR vice president and executive editor Terry Samuel on Monday, where he outlined the newsroom's ambitions to focus on substance over spectacle.

Samuel explained:

NPR intended to provide special live coverage on Tuesday during the court hearing where the indictment was unsealed and Trump officially pleaded not guilty.

NPR would not broadcast any live statements from Trump, including his Tuesday night press conference at Mar-a-Lago, although they did use relevant excerpts in news reports. Why? "Devoting resources live says to the audience this is a singularly important moment and you should hear it, and we don't think that that necessarily rises to that threshold," Samuel said.

NPR made "mistakes and missteps" covering Trump in the past, mostly by embracing the standard convention of giving politicians a lot of leeway to make claims. That doesn't work anymore, he said, because of the tendency for some people to be "not just disingenuous but completely deceptive, for political purposes."

In addition to their live coverage, NPR would provide a steady stream of digital updates on their digital and social platforms.

Kudos to NPR for letting the audience in on the behind-the-scenes decision-making. I endorse this approach. But I disagree with one part of it: The live coverage during the hearing was unnecessary, because the court did not permit a live transmission of the hearing. There was the potential for breaking news both in the courtroom and outside on the streets, and NPR needed to be prepared to go live if events turned dramatic. But there was no actual news until the 34-count indictment was released at the conclusion of the hearing. That was the only moment that merited live coverage.

NPR layoffs

NPR announced last week that, because of layoffs, four podcasts will go dark: Invisibilia, Louder than a Riot, Rough Translation and Everyone & Their Mom. A fifth podcast, Short Wave, will decrease production. Media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering NPR's budget issues, as well as those at other news companies.

We will be talking with NPR leaders about these changes and anything else that might affect the audience and will include that in future newsletters or columns.

Twitter nonsense

In a wrongheaded and obnoxious move, Twitter this week began labeling NPR's main account "US state-affiliated media." This is blatantly false and offensive. Twitter's old policy on state-affiliated media clearly stated that newsrooms like NPR and the BBC were editorially independent from the government and did not deserve this label. Twitter quietly removed that reference to NPR in the policy.

NPR's Bill Chappell clarified the organization's status in a story about this new labeling. "NPR operates independently of the U.S. government. And while federal money is important to the overall public media system, NPR gets less than 1% of its annual budget, on average, from federal sources," Chappell wrote.

That "state-affiliated" label is normally applied to government-run news outlets and is meant to give news consumers pause and indicate that the information might not be trustworthy. It's galling that Twitter would put NPR in the same category as media like Tass, Russia's state-owned news agency.

NPR is fighting this.

Your regularly scheduled newsletter

Today, we respond to an audience concern that came from our inbox.

We have previously addressed critiques of encore stories (or reruns), which are tangentially related to staffing issues: One reason NPR uses old content is to free staff to produce new content.

We're examining a related practice that resulted in an on-air correction on All Things Considered. The mistake ultimately revealed a flawed process in pulling materials from NPR's archives. Read on to see how this happened and how the newsroom is instituting a new practice to prevent such a mistake in the future.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

A mistake embedded in the past

Katie Grzesiak wrote on Feb. 28: I was extremely disappointed in a story I heard today about Watson and Crick and DNA's structure. ... While I love the science bits and it was a treat to hear clips from an interview with Watson and Crick themselves, I was shocked that there was not a single mention of the incredibly crucial contributions of Rosalind Franklin (and Maurice Wilkins). ... Failing to include Dr. Franklin on the eve of Women's History Month doesn't look great. ... Hoping for a more inclusive edition for the 75th anniversary!

On the 70th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, All Things Considered staff reached into NPR's archives for an old interview with two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work. As NPR librarians digitized the archive of old material that was on tape, they made a list of notable stories that might be valuable in the future and this interview was on it. Events like this milestone are the perfect moments to resurrect old material.

The interview was conducted in 1993 by science correspondent Joe Palca to commemorate an earlier milestone, the 40th anniversary of the discovery. At that time, Palca was a new reporter at NPR. He retired last October after 30 years.

Rosalind Franklin's contribution was widely known by the 1990s, but rarely acknowledged by the scientific community. Watson and Crick relied on measurements calculated by Franklin, based on a photo taken by one of her researchers. Watson even wrote about Franklin (at times disparagingly, although he eventually redeemed himself in the epilogue) in his 1968 memoir The Double Helix.

In the early 2000s and 2010, a paper, biography and play began the work of insisting that Franklin's contribution be acknowledged. Journalism followed.

As a result of those efforts, Franklin is now commonly identified as a significant contributor to the discovery of DNA. All of this was knowable by looking in NPR's own archives beyond that 1993 interview.

Upon hearing his old interview on ATC, Palca was one of the first people to let NPR know that an important part of the story was missing. NPR listeners followed.

ATC ran a rare on-air correction the next day and appended a correction to the digital story.

This important omission revealed a flaw in NPR's process of pulling old material from the archive, said Eric Marrapodi, vice president for news programming. From now on, the standard procedure when pulling an old story to re-air will include contacting the original person who produced the story, or the equivalent expert on staff, he said.

That's a sound remedy to a predictable problem. Even the best stories from 30 years ago may not hold up today. It's crucial to insert a step where a knowledgeable person asks the question: What more have we learned about this topic since the story was first reported?

It's also good to see the on-air correction. When a mistake is broadcast on All Things Considered or Morning Edition, it's usually caught and fixed by the time the show cycles around the next hour or in later time zones. The correction is noted in the digital copy of the story that lives on the NPR website, but no on-air correction is made.

That goes against the best journalistic practices of correcting mistakes in the same space where the audience most likely heard or saw the mistake. Granted, the audience is not always the same from one day to the next. If a mistake is made in the first hour of ATC, that's the most likely place to correct the record with listeners who heard it.

On Feb. 28, the old interview ran twice on ATC before the staff was alerted that the story was incomplete. Then it was pulled out of the lineup without being fixed. That left ATC with only one choice — own the mistake on the air, which they did.

It's a practice I will continue to advocate for. If an error goes out over the airwaves, it should be corrected on the airwaves, in as close to the same space as the mistake originally occurred. — Kelly McBride

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBrideNPR Public EditorChair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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