NPR’s Public Editor: ‘Roberts’ statement directly refuted NPR’s reporting but no correction is needed

NPR’s Public Editor, Kelly McBride, has written a piece responding to Nina Totenberg’s contested reporting on the Supreme Court. According to McBride, Totenberg’s reporting was misleading but does not require a correction:

Totenberg’s story merits a clarification, but not a correction. After talking to Totenberg and reading all justices’ statements, I believe her reporting was solid, but her word choice was misleading…

Here’s the key assertion in the story from Tuesday’s Morning Edition: “The situation had changed, and, according to court sources, Sotomayor did not feel safe in close proximity to people who were unmasked. Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form or other, asked the other justices to mask up.”…

Exactly how did Roberts, in some form, ask or suggest that his colleagues cover up? Totenberg told me she hedged on this: “If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it. Instead I said ‘in some form.’ “

So, Totenberg first said CJ Roberts “asked” and then in a radio interview said he “suggested” masking, but she literally does not know how he did this. And this is where McBride says the original story was misleading. But as you read on McBride states Roberts’ “directly refuted” Totenberg’s account.

Totenberg and her editors should have chosen a word other than “asked.” And she could have been clear about how she knew there was subtle pressure to wear masks (the nature or even exact number of her anonymous sources) and what she didn’t know (exactly how Roberts was communicating)…

Robert’s statement directly refuted NPR’s reporting. “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench,” he said…

And Jesus Magallanes wrote, “I saw the ‘in some form’ part as a justification for standing by the reporting but there’s no explanation why that is. A request, regardless of the form it came in, is a request, correct? In order for the story to be true as NPR first reported, Roberts would’ve had to have asked ‘in some form,’ but he said he didn’t, full stop.”

Jesus Magallanes is correct. Whether Totenberg said Roberts “asked” or that he “suggested” masks, those all fall under the category of requests, but Roberts flatly says he didn’t make such a request. McBride is correct that he has directly refuted the Totenberg claim, so why isn’t a correction needed here? McBride has taken us right up to the point of saying the original story was wrong and then doesn’t offer any reason why Totenberg’s denials that it is wrong should be credited. Is the Chief Justice lying?

Instead, McBride immediately goes on to make a clear mistake arguing Totenberg’s broader point hasn’t been challenged: “No one has challenged the broader focus of Totenberg’s original story, which asserts that the justices in general are not getting along well.”

Really? No one has challenged the idea that the judges aren’t getting along? Then what did this statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch mean? “While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.” It seems to me that announcing warm friendship is a direct challenge to the broader focus of Totenberg’s report, i.e. that the judges aren’t getting along. How McBride and everyone else at NPR has missed this is anyone’s guess.

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