Comment: NPR holds master class in confronting Trump, Big Lie

Steve Inskeep’s interview allowed Trump to speak but sandwiched his falsehoods with facts and context.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

How can journalists interview Donald Trump — or other politicians who consistently spread misinformation — without magnifying their lies? It’s been a challenge, and a problem, for years.

One answer arrived Wednesday when NPR aired its long-sought chat with the former president, conducted a day earlier by Steve Inskeep, a host of “Morning Edition.” The interview has drawn plenty of attention because Trump abruptly ended the call after nine minutes, cutting short what was planned as a 15-minute chat.

“So Steve, thank you very much,” Trump said, mid-conversation and without warning, after attempting to deflect or ignore some of Inskeep’s questions. “I appreciate it.” With that, he hung up.

But to me, the interview was less notable for its sudden ending than for what it accomplished. Although noncombative in tone, it still managed to give listeners an accurate picture of the subject matter: Trump’s insistence on promoting an evidence-free and thoroughly debunked argument that the 2020 election was rigged and that he should have been granted a second term as the rightful winner.

Inskeep and NPR demonstrated that they were fully aware of how damaging such fabrications can be; and that they are unwilling to hand a big megaphone to that “big lie.”

Throughout the interview, Trump kept coming with his misleading rhetoric, offering one fleetingly plausible-sounding but utterly false idea after another about a supposedly fraud-ridden election.

But Inskeep kept coming, too, pushing back at each of these statements. “Your own lawyers had no evidence of fraud,” the host corrected Trump at one point. “They said in court they had no evidence of fraud, and the judges ruled against you every time on the merits.”

It was a great example of what I’ve been advocating for years: the “truth sandwich” approach to covering false claims, not a new problem but certainly a pervasive one in the Trump era. The idea is to avoid magnifying lies; and the technique is to surround false statements with established truths before and after, thus blunting the effect of what can amount to propaganda.

It helped, immensely, that NPR’s interview was taped. It meant that Inskeep was able to lead into his piece with almost five minutes of reporting, including archived interviews with election officials and others. So, when listeners heard Trump, they could keep in mind what they had heard just minutes before. After the conversation with Trump came yet another voice; that of Mara Liasson, an NPR national political correspondent, who talked with Inskeep for a minute or so to provide valuable perspective and another helping of truth.

“A master class in contextualization,” Richard Tofel, longtime president of ProPublica, called the interview. And, he added, a reminder of “why Trump and fellow Big Liars should be interviewed on tape rather than live.”

Inskeep said Thursday that a taped interview was always the plan and that Trump and his handlers had no objection when they agreed to the interview, NPR’s first with Trump since he became a presidential candidate in 2015. Inskeep has been requesting one regularly since then.

The host was not only well-prepared to counter, in real time, what Trump probably would say during the interview. He was also well aware of the possible pitfalls. “The whole genre of newsmaker-interviews is broken,” Inskeep told me.

Too many interviews make the newsmaker “the narrator of the story,” he explained; and particularly in these political times, “sometimes they are unreliable narrators.”

Presenting these conversations as raw Q&A’s means that the public is deprived of the necessary context. Deprived, too often, of truth. “You need extra voices, extra facts, extra context,” Inskeep said.

As the first snippets of the recorded interview were played for listeners just after 5 a.m. Wednesday, some essential context came in the form of an introductory dialogue between Inskeep and co-host Rachel Martin. At one point, Inskeep bluntly characterized his conversation with Trump with this straightforward observation: “He repeated his lies a lot.”

Crucially, NPR had chosen not to rush the long-awaited interview onto the airwaves, giving Inskeep and his team time to produce the segment smartly, with all the necessary background. “There’s almost no story that isn’t improved by holding it for a day,” Inskeep said. That isn’t always possible, of course; sometimes the news won’t wait. But in this case, the extra time paid off.

Some observers challenged the entire premise of the interview: Why give Trump more attention, given the misinformation he spreads so relentlessly?

Even if Trump weren’t eyeing another run for president, the answer would be simple: The massive campaign to deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election is a crisis for our nation and undeniably newsworthy.

Trump is at the center of it all, given his dominance in American politics and his grip on the Republican Party. In thrall to him, Republican politicians and operatives are day after day finding ways to make it more difficult for Americans to vote and easier for partisans to overturn valid voting results. Democracy itself is on the line.

The role of mainstream journalists is significant, and, overall, their record has been far less than stellar. Too many, whether in a one-on-one interview or at larger sessions with a number of reporters, have failed to push back in a way that matters. Trump is such a facile talker — one who specializes in dazzling displays of distraction, ad hominem attacks and repetition — that challenging him effectively in real time can be almost impossible.

Those journalistic failures have not served the public.

As George Lakoff, a linguist and a proponent of the “truth sandwich,” told me in 2018: “Trump needs the media and the media help him by repeating what he says.”

With all-important midterm elections this year, and the 2024 presidential campaign ready to erupt soon after, journalists need to finally figure out how to cover Trump and his acolytes effectively.

They could do a lot worse than to follow NPR’s example.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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