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Journalist Roundtable: How Should Media Cover Trump's Administration

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to talk again as we do periodically about media standards and President Donald Trump's relationship with the media. Well, it's hard to imagine, but that relationship grew even more tense this week after White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said in an interview with The New York Times that, quote, "the media should keep its mouth shut," unquote. This in a week when both Bannon and the president himself describe the media as the opposition party. And another top adviser, Kellyanne Conway, used the term alternative facts to describe the White House press secretary's insistence on defending inaugural crowd sizes with no basis in fact.

That triggered a debate among major media organizations about whether or not to call such things lies. Earlier today, I spoke with John Daniszewski. He's vice president for standards at the Associated Press, Liz Spayd, public editor for The New York Times and Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post. And we started the conversation about the standard - what the standard should be for using the word lie when covering President Donald Trump. NPR has been criticized about our standard for using the word. The AP's John Daniszewski started the conversation off.

JOHN DANISZEWSKI: There has to be a pretty high bar to call something a lie, and it does denote not only stating a falsehood, but having an intent to deceive. So we do not ban the word lie. We have used it on rare occasions, but we set a very high bar for the evidence for using that word.

MARTIN: Liz Spayd, what about you? Where should the bar be?

ELIZABETH SPAYD: I also think the bar should be very high. The Times has used it in I believe two occasions. What I worry about is that as time goes on that bar starts to drop, and I have a feeling that Trump's comments are more apt to get the badge than someone else's. And I think that some politicians are a lot more sophisticated and savvy than Trump when it comes to twisting the facts. And that is pretty dangerous for public information, too. And I think that The Times and all media needs to really pay attention to that and not get sidetracked on the is-it-a-lie-or-isn't-it-a-lie debate.

MARTIN: Margaret Sullivan, what are your thoughts about this, recognizing that your job is not to speak for the newsroom or to address complaints to the newsroom, but your job is to address the media more broadly?

MARGARET SULLIVAN: I think we need to be very clear in calling a lie a lie when the circumstances warrant it. So I think that we need to be brave about this because it matters. Words matter. It took the media too long to start calling torture torture. We used words like enhanced interrogation techniques. Well, that's a way of allowing a euphemism to exist, so I think we need to be pretty upfront about this and use the right words.

MARTIN: I want to also raise an issue which is not so much a present issue for the people gathered here because live coverage is not so much the meat of our work. We did reach out to major television networks for this conversation - ABC, NBC and CNN, our own ombudsman Elizabeth Johnson - they all declined to participate in this conversation.

But the reason I wanted to ask about this - this is a whole question of what should the standard be because there is this disagreement about whether this information is factually correct and contextually fair? But what do you say? You know, how do you defend that in an era when the president is very disposed to make his own communications directly without the benefit of the media? Margaret Sullivan, what are your thoughts about this?

SULLIVAN: Well, we have to get better at fact-checking in real time. And actually NPR did a fantastic job of that during the debates, and The Washington Post is doing more of it, and, you know, many media organizations are to their credit. We need to be able to bring our experts, have them involved in the coverage of these events as they're happening to provide context as we're going. And, you know, I think that it may well be acceptable to broadcast something live and in its entirety.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you how you see this era. Many people are calling this kind of unprecedented. Many people are calling this new territory, and other people are saying actually it isn't. It's just new to people in this era. It's new to us in the United States, in the current environment, so I wanted to ask each of you how do you see this as a historical moment? Liz, I'll start with you.

SPAYD: Well, it certainly is an incredibly important test for the media of how they conduct themselves and how they spend their time and their researches during this period. I happen to think that some of these issues, particularly this past week around the media are kind of red herrings. They're exactly what the Trump administration wants the media to do is to get into a battle with him. It's what Bannon said or, you know, like, come on, like, publish this, like, we want you to tell the public that we're in this fight.

That's exactly what they want, and there are so many critical issues out there that I think the media ought to be so aggressive on. For me, the single biggest one is to continue to investigate whether there was or is some kind of a link between the Trump campaign and a foreign adversary in Russia. There are just yuge (ph), yuge issues. There are any number of things that are going on with our policy right now - foreign policy and domestic. And I hope the media doesn't get distracted by things that are less important.

MARTIN: John Daniszewski, final thought from you please.

DANISZEWSKI: I think that one point to make is the media is not a monolith. It's pluralistic. We have a very broad spectrum of media in this country. To use the media as a scapegoat for criticism or opposition to certain policies, it's deceptive because the criticism and opposition is out there. And the media functions as a referee, an umpire and in fact-checking says when one side is right or when the other side is right. But the media is not a party to battle against this administration or any other administration.

MARTIN: That's John Daniszewski. He's vice president for standards at the Associated Press. Liz Spayd is public editor at The New York Times. They were both with us from our bureau in New York City. With us in our studios in Washington, D.C., is Margaret Sullivan media columnist for The Washington Post. Thank you all so much for joining us today.

SPAYD: Thank you.

SULLIVAN: Thanks, Michel.

DANISZEWSKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.