A top editor at NPR acknowledged a report that received an unprecedented setback from three Supreme Court justices “deserves a clarification,” but stopped offering a correction or a withdrawal.
NPR public editor Kelly McBride addressed the ongoing controversy involving a story published Tuesday in which alleged judge Neil Gorsuch refused to wear a mask despite being asked by Chief Justice John Roberts, stemming from the health concerns of their colleague Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes and makes her vulnerable to COVID. All three rejected NPR’s reporting.
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On Thursday, McBride admitted that the report written by NPR’s chief correspondent for legal affairs Nina Totenberg “deserves a clarification, but not a correction.”
“After speaking with Totenberg and reading all the judges’ statements, I think her reporting was solid, but her wording was misleading,” McBride wrote.
McBride reset a specific except from Totenberg’s report on how Supreme Court justices adapted to the COVID precautions, had changed after the holiday break during the Omicron rise.
Totenburg had written, “according to court sources, Sotomayor did not feel safe near people who were exposed. Chief Justice John Roberts, who understood that in some form the other judges were asking to disguise themselves.”
McBride noted that later Tuesday, the word “asked” was changed to “suggested.”
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“Exactly how did Roberts, in one form or another, ask or suggests that his colleagues cover over? Totenberg told me she stuck to this: “If I knew exactly how he communicated this, I would say it. Instead, I said ‘in some form,'” McBride recalled his exchange with Totenberg. “That phrasing is at the heart of the dispute. Totenberg said she has several solid sources who are familiar with the court’s inner workings and who told her that Roberts conveyed something to his co-judges about Sotomayor’s concerns in light of the omicron wave. Totenberg said , that her NPR editors were aware of who these sources are and stood by the reporting. “
“Totenberg and her editors should have chosen a word other than ‘asked’. And she could have been aware of how she knew there was a subtle pressure to wear masks (nature or even the exact number of her anonymous sources) and what she did not know (exactly how Roberts communicated), ”McBride continued. .
The editor also admitted that the NPR “risks losing the credibility of audience members” without any clarification, and that “the interruption between the story and President Roberts’ statement is of concern to many NPR listeners and readers who wrote to us.”
“No one has challenged the broader focus in Totenberg’s original story, which claims that the judges generally do not come out well. The controversy over the anecdotal lead role, which was intended to be illustrative, has overwhelmed the undisputed premise of the story.” McBride wrote. “As NPR’s story was originally formulated, news consumers have to choose between believing in the Chief Justice or believing in Totenberg. A clarification that improves the verb choice that describes the court’s inner workings would solve that dilemma.”
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Totenberg has previously doubled his reporting and wrote in a follow-up article on Wednesday: “What is indisputable is that all judges at once have started wearing masks – except Gorsuch. Meanwhile, Judge Sotomayor has stayed out of the courtroom. instead, she has from a distance participated in the court’s arguments and the judges’ weekly conference, where they discuss the cases and vote on them. “
In Totenberg’s first report, the veteran journalist claimed that there was tension between Gorsuch and Sotomayor over his refusal to wear a mask regardless of her health problems.
“Now, however, the situation had changed with the omicron rise, and according to court sources, Sotomayor did not feel safe near people who were exposed,” Totenberg wrote. “Chief Justice John Roberts, understood that, in one form or another asked the other judges to disguise themselves. They all did. Except Gorsuch, who as it happens is sitting next to Sotomayor on the bench. His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the judges’ weekly conference in person, but has instead joined by telephone. “
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Fox News’ Shannon Bream reported on Tuesday on “Special Report” that NPR’s reporting was “not accurate”, according to a source who said there was never a request from Roberts that everyone wear masks, Sotomayor has never made such a statement. request to Gorsuch and Gorsuch never refused to wear a mask.
On Wednesday, Gorsuch and Sotomayor issued an unprecedented joint statement declaring NPR’s history “false.”
“Reporting that Judge Sotomayor asked Judge Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. Although we can sometimes disagree on the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” the statement read.
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Roberts flatly denied NPR’s reporting, saying “I did not ask Judge Gorsuch or any other judge to wear a mask on the bench.”
NPR repeatedly defended its report following both the Gorsuch-Sotomayor statement and the Roberts statement, telling Fox News that it stood by Totenberg’s report.