We've made it through two weeks of back-to-back political conventions, with an accompanying burst of emails from listeners. The majority of messages to my office this week and last concerned the joint NPR/PBS prime-time convention broadcasts, which I addressed in an earlier column. But there were other concerns, as well. Here are some thoughts on just a few of those concerns
Some listeners questioned whether NPR would give equal fact-check time to both conventions.
NPR.org reader Paul Niesen, of Fairview Heights, Ill., wrote mid-week asking why, "into the third day of the Democratic convention, I've not seen any posting on the online site of a similar fact-checking review of the Democrat's convention speakers." He added,"I find this lack of coverage curious. I rely on NPR as an unbiased news source in a turbulent sea of otherwise skewed news services ... but this week's lack of fact-checking so far has me wondering."
NPR posted an online fact-check piece on the first night of the Republican National Convention, and that piece's author, Scott Detrow, talked about the findings with Morning Edition. There was no comparable piece for the Democratic National Convention.
But the bulk of NPR's efforts went into fact-checking the acceptance speeches from the nominees — both of them. Here's the fact check of Donald Trump's speech and the counterpart for Hillary Clinton's speech.
Listener Susan Sternberg tweeted her distaste with the inconsistency in how NPR journalists refer to the candidates.
I don't have a tally, but a quick check shows that not "everyone" on NPR does this. It happens too often, however, and I heard it many times during the convention coverage. Why is that? My guess is that the normal instinct (I do it myself) is to call the candidates by the name that has entered the wider public conversation. Trump calls himself "Trump" in his logos and messaging; Clinton's branding often refers to her as "Hillary" (although not always). I also heard Bernie Sanders referred to by his first name, reflecting how his supporters referred to him.
In Clinton's case, another reason many use her first name may be to distinguish her from her husband; this is the first time in U.S. history that a wife has followed her husband as a presidential candidate, and some people still think first of Bill Clinton when hearing just the last name.
My view: NPR has a policy, which is to use last names, and its journalists should stick to it.
Way back on the first evening of the Republican convention (seems like ages ago), Melania Trump, wife of the nominee, gave a speech, parts of which were later found to have been plagiarized. I heard from some listeners who were unhappy that NPR initially used the word "mirrored" to describe the similar language in Melania Trump's speech that also appeared in Michelle Obama's 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. I also heard about what I consider a more serious concern that NPR appeared to engage in false equivalency in its reporting on the story.
Nikki Brown, a professor at the University of New Orleans, wrote: "I am writing to complain about NPR's current coverage of Melania Trump's convention speech, specifically that NPR uses a euphemism to describe the plagiarism of the First Lady of the United States." She goes on: "There is 'mirroring,' there is 'paraphrasing,' and then there is plagiarism, and this is what the speech-writers did. As a tenured professor of history, I've heard all the excuses from students about their sloppy writing mistakes. Still, if one of my students did this, it would be a violation of the honor code and of academic honesty."
Yes, lines in the speech were plagiarized; its speechwriter later apologized.
NPR's language evolved. The first story noted (emphasis mine), "several social media users pointed out that a section was startlingly similar to one Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008." The next-day stories, as Brown said, used the word "mirrors." And "near-identical" and "echoes" (in a headline) and yes, "plagiarism" — in the same story as the one with the "echoes" headline. An online story recounted, "when parts of Melania Trump's RNC speech mirrored Michelle Obama's 2008 speech at the DNC, she joined a long list of accused political plagiarists."
I don't think any reader or listener was confused about what happened. If you subscribe to the "show, not tell" practice of journalism, then an online story posted at 12:38 a.m. the morning after the speech, which embedded video of the two speeches, was pretty damning. The two were also played side by side in many newscasts, so listeners could judge for themselves.
So why not just call it "plagiarism" from the very start? NPR's policy, which was written into its ethics handbook several years ago, defines plagiarism as "Taking someone else's work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own." A memo from standards editor Mark Memmott last week goes on: "Note the word 'intentionally.' We can talk about phrases that are 'word-for-word' or that 'mirror each other.' It's fine to say there's a 'plagiarism issue' or that the speech last night raised questions about whether some parts were plagiarized. But we don't know at this time whether anything was done 'intentionally.' So don't declare that there's been some plagiarism."
As a journalist friend pointed out, no dictionary definition explicitly includes the idea of intent (Merriam-Webster defines it as "to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas"). And, as Brown says, educational institutions, including New York University, where I have taught in the past, don't care whether the copying was intentional or not.
I asked Memmott if he wanted to comment and he declined. But he did comment to Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication.
Memmott told Buttry, in part:
"When we wrote our Ethics Handbook in 2012 we included this definition of plagiarism: 'Taking someone else's work and intentionally presenting it as if it is your own.' We realized that wasn't a strict 'dictionary definition.' But we included the word 'intentionally' for a very specific reason: to allow us to apply some judgment.
We were thinking about how we would react if a journalist who had never stolen from someone else's work inadvertently left a line or phrase from another file in his or her copy. Did that person make a serious mistake? Yes. Does that person deserve to be labeled a 'plagiarist' and be disciplined or even fired? We wanted some flexibility to make an intelligent decision.
On the morning when I reminded the staff about our definition, the story about Melania Trump's speech was developing. I was thinking that we should not rush to hold her to a different standard than we would hold ourselves.
You and others have said that no one will ever admit they intended to plagiarize. You may be right. But I would say that a confession isn't necessary to determine intent. It's not hard to tell the difference between a slip by someone who's never been accused or convicted of plagiarism and a story that's got several 'lifts' from different sources. And if someone slips and is later caught again, I think intent has been proven by his actions.
You wrote that we're guilty of 'comical gymnastics.' That's a good line. I would hope, though, that you would give us some credit for trying to think things through. Have we overthought it? Perhaps. But I would say our intentions are good."
Buttry wrote in reply: "I do think NPR has overthought this. I don't care to distinguish between sloppy plagiarism or dishonest plagiarism. I wouldn't want a journalist or speech writer who committed either offense working for me. And both are plagiarism."
I agree. NPR should have used the word from the beginning.
I am more concerned about the two different ways NPR reported the story, in a short newscast at 4:30 p.m. on July 19 and in a much longer All Things Considered report that same hour.
As Thomaston, Conn., listener Bob Carr (among others) wrote to my office, the newscast "had a quote from [Trump campaign Chairman] Paul Manafort about the Clinton campaign being responsible for the initial 'plagiarism' commentary on Twitter. That was the extent of the 'news item.' Your own reporter in an earlier story refuted the claim that the Clinton campaign" initiated the plagiarism charges. He added, "That is shoddy reporting and provides a one sided, self-serving, comment from the Trump campaign as fact."
This is the exact wording of the newscast: "Chairman Paul Manafort says the speech wasn't cribbed from anywhere, even though several phrases are essentially identical to Michelle Obama's speech. Manafort blamed the accusation on politics, and said, 'When Hillary Clinton is threatened by a female, the first thing she does is try to destroy the person.'"
I am with the listener. The newscast may have been pressed for time (my guess), but what came across by using Manafort's quote unchallenged was the kind of false equivalence that needs to be avoided. Robert Garcia, the executive producer of the newscasts, agreed that the additional information was needed, and noted that the 5 p.m. newscast did include the fact that the charges did not come initially from Clinton's camp.
Now, to end on a high note. My office monitored all of the convention coverage for the last two weeks and we heard some excellent journalism. Here are just a few pieces that we appreciated from each week.
From intern Shane McKeon:
On All Things Considered, Robert Siegel spoke to a few millennials who attended the Republican convention. Ryder Haag, a 19-year-old delegate from Nevada, was especially memorable. "I mean, the Republican National Convention is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for Republicans. It's an amazing opportunity. There's plenty of beer and other alcoholic beverages. I'm not old enough to partake, however." It was refreshing to hear young people's voices on the air, sharing the issues that matter to them: the national debt, spending, Supreme Court vacancies, national security, same sex marriage.
And this week, on Morning Edition, Tamara Keith told the story of Hillary Rodham's 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley College. Rodham, a graduating senior who was the first student in Wellesley's history to give such a speech, followed then-Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), whose speech celebrated incremental progress and criticized "coercive protest." He called protest "wrong" and "unnecessary." Before delivering her remarks, Rodham went off-script and rebutted Brooke's comments: "We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest." The shade was reported in The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Keith's retelling of the mini-controversy — complete with tape from Rodham's original speech — gave an insight into Hillary Clinton's earlier years, when she formed her political consciousness.
And from editorial researcher Annie Johnson:
The verb "to cleave" is a bit of an oxymoron. NPR political editor Ron Elving points out the irony of having a convention in Cleveland in his lovely overview of the Republican convention. In addition to a great opening paragraph, veteran Elving adds context to how each night of the convention fit into the narrative of the entire Trump campaign; and how a deeply divided party came together on the final night of the convention. If you want more of Elving's wisdom in conversational tone, check out the NPR Politics Podcast.
Moving on to the Democrats, during a week that seemed short on platform scrutiny, NPR Ed's Anya Kamenetz provided an excellent deep dive on an issue that was a focus of the primary season: college tuition. Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that Clinton had compromised on a proposal for free tuition at public colleges. Kamenetz looked at how much the proposal would cost, how it would work and some of the challenges it may face.
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