Richard Gonzales, NPR's ombudsman, addressed the question of why NPR does not say that Donald Trump is lying when he says something that is clearly not true. The immediate point of reference was Trump's assertion to an audience at the CIA that the media had invented the feud between Trump and the intelligence agencies, even though Trump had repeatedly made harsh public comments directed at them. 

Gonzales commented:

"On Morning Edition, Kelly [NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly] explains why. She says she went to the Oxford English Dictionary seeking the definition of 'lie.'

"'A false statement made with intent to deceive,' Kelly says. 'Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn't, with facts.'

"NPR's senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, says NPR has decided not to use the word 'lie' and that Kelly got it right by avoiding that word."

While it is a good practice for reporters not to attempt to tell their audiences what is in a politician's head, this is not standard practice at either NPR or other news outlets. It is in fact quite common for reporters to tell us that politicians "believe" or are "concerned" about a particular issue or event.

For example, just yesterday NPR ran a segment on the budget which told us what Republicans "believe:"

"The House GOP's plan, as outlined, would add to the deficit in that it would very likely result in less revenue coming in, but Republicans believe their tax overhaul would generate significant economic growth to make up the difference."

I frequently complain about this sort of mind reading in Beat the Press (e.g here, here, and here). As Ms. Kelly and Mr. Oreskes said, reporters lack the ability to peer in politicians heads to determine what they are really thinking. Unfortunately, they have a tendency to claim that they do in their reporting. 

It is understandable that NPR does not want to claim that it knows the state of Donald Trump's mind. It would be a huge step forward if it would apply this standard in its reporting more generally.

 

Thanks to Keane Bhatt for calling this to my attention.