The widening controversy over an NPR story on masks in the Supreme Court turned inward as a legendary reporter there blasted the broadcaster’s public editor for critiquing her work.
The public editor, Kelly McBride, who operates independently of the newsroom but takes a paycheck from the publication, called for a “clarification, but not a correction” to an article about the Supreme Court written by one of the newsroom’s “founding mothers,” legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
“She can write any goddam thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true,” Totenberg told The Daily Beast on Thursday night. “She’s not clarifying anything!”
Totenberg laughed, and 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.”
Totenberg had reported on Tuesday that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is diabetic, had been working remotely, asking questions from a microphone in her chambers at a recent hearing and calling into the justices’ weekly conference, to avoid being near Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was the only justice not to wear a mask at that hearing. Totenberg also reported that Chief Justice John Roberts had “in some form asked the other justices to mask up,” prior to that hearing, a request that Gorsuch, who sits next to Sotomayor on the bench in the high court, had evidently refused.
In a statement, Gorsuch and Sotomayor, said that “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.” In his own statement, Roberts said, “I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other Justice to wear a mask on the bench.”
McBride, NPR’s public editor, then wrote that “After talking to Totenberg and reading all justices’ statements, I believe her reporting was solid, but her word choice was misleading.”
“Totenberg and her editors should have chosen a word other than ‘asked’… It’s not a nuanced word.” McBride wrote, in an article with the subtitle “An inaccurate verb choice made the reporting unclear.” Unless “asked” was updated in the article to something like “suggested,” a word Totenberg later used while discussing her story in an All Things Considered segment, McBride warned that “NPR risks losing credibility with audience members.”
A spokesperson for NPR told The Daily Beast late Thursday that “we stand behind Nina Totenberg’s reporting.” The NPR offical added: “The public editor is independent and does not speak for NPR.”
McBride, for her part, told the Daily Beast on Thursday night that she stood by her recommendation, and that she does “think NPR should clarify the language in the story.”
But in her own telephone conversation with the Beast, Totenberg — a towering presence at NPR who has been there since 1975 — responded to McBride, the justices, and general criticism of her story.
“A non-denial denial from two of them doesn’t work,” Totenberg said, referring to the statement from Sotomayor and Gorsuch. As to Roberts, she said, “the other just refuses to accept the fact that I did not say that he requested that people do anything, but in some form did.”
“I have got nothing to say, except that I am sticking by my reporting,” Totenberg said while eating dinner. “I think it is absolutely valid.”