NPR Reporter Erupts After Editor Criticizes SCOTUS Story Denied By Justices

Three justices have denied the story's main point.
UNSPECIFIED - SEPTEMBER 22: In this screengrab Nina Totenberg speaks during the CITIZEN by CNN 2020 Conference on September 22, 2020 in UNSPECIFIED, United States. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for CNN)
Getty Images/Getty Images for CNN

The National Public Radio reporter behind a story about face masks and the Supreme Court that the justices themselves have denied remained defiant on Thursday after one of NPR’s own editors criticized her story.

Nina Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs correspondent, had an intense reaction to NPR’s public editor Kelly McBride saying the story “merits a clarification, but not a correction,” without which NPR risks losing credibility with readers.

“She can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true,” Totenberg told The Daily Beast. “She’s not clarifying anything!”

She laughed and then added, “I haven’t even looked at it, and I don’t care to look at it because I report to the news division, she does not report to the news division.”

McBride penned an article on Thursday criticizing Totenberg’s “word choice” in her SCOTUS report.

“After talking to Totenberg and reading all justices’ statements, I believe her reporting was solid, but her word choice was misleading,” McBride wrote.

In her story, which has has been widely challenged since publication, Totenberg reported that Chief Justice John Roberts “in some form asked the other justices to mask up” because Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has diabetes, did not feel safe being close to people who were unmasked.

Furthermore, Totenberg reported that Justice Neil Gorsuch, who sits next to Sotomayor on the bench, has not been masking up, and his “continued refusal” has meant that Sotomayor has participated in court business remotely.

The NPR report has not been clarified or corrected despite Sotomayor and Gorsuch releasing a joint statement saying she did not ask him to wear a face mask.

“Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false. While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends,” the two justices said in their statement.

Roberts later released a statement as well saying he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.”

“The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come ‘in some form.’ NPR stands by its reporting,” the story reads.

Later on NPR’s news program “All Things Considered,” Totenberg changed the wording of her report to say that Roberts “in some form or other suggested” that the other justices wear a mask.

“Totenberg and her editors should have chosen a word other than ‘asked.’ And she could have been clear about how she knew there was subtle pressure to wear masks (the nature or even exact number of her anonymous sources) and what she didn’t know (exactly how Roberts was communicating),” McBride added in her article criticizing Totenberg’s phrasing.

“In the absence of a clarification, NPR risks losing credibility with audience members who see the plainly worded statement from Roberts and are forced to go back to NPR’s story and reconcile the nuances of the verb ‘asked’ when in fact, it’s not a nuanced word,” the NPR public editor added.

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