The saga of NPR’s Supreme Court “maskgate” continued Thursday as an apparent internal feud spilled out into public as legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg went to the very liberal Daily Beast to vent her anger over the radio station’s public editor, Kelly McBride critiquing her reporting and saying she could have done better.
In an opinion piece published Thursday evening, McBride contended that “an inaccurate verb choice made the reporting unclear.”
In reality, McBride largely stood by Totenberg in a way that certainly didn’t warrant the latter’s later anger. “Totenberg's story merits a clarification, but not a correction. After talking to Totenberg and reading all justices' statements, I believe her reporting was solid, but her word choice was misleading,” she wrote.
Her main criticism boiled down to Totenberg’s word choice between claiming Chief Justice John Roberts “asked,” (which is what the original report said) to wear a mask and “suggested” (which is how she described it later on).
Totenberg’s bitterness could even be seen bubbling up in their interview:
Exactly how did Roberts, in some form, ask or suggest that his colleagues cover up? Totenberg told me she hedged on this: "If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it. Instead I said 'in some form.' "
In McBride’s piece, Totenberg admits she has no clue as to how Roberts had supposedly communicated to the other justices that they needed to wear masks.
“In the absence of a clarification,” McBride went on to warn, “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.”
Despite McBride touting how “[n]o one has challenged the broader focus of Totenberg's original story, which asserts that the justices in general are not getting along well” was somehow true, Totenberg’s fragile ego was bruised.
In an apparent phone call with The Daily Beast’s Zachary Petrizzo and Blake Montgomery, Totenberg blew a gasket:
“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.”
She also lashed out at the justices for issuing rare public statements rebuking her claims:
“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.”
The Daily Beast was definitely in Totenberg’s corner for this rumble in the NPR jungle. The headline described her as NPR’s “founding mother” and in the body of the piece they lionized her as “a towering presence at NPR who has been there since 1975.”
They also seemed to hold it against McBride that she’s an NPR employee “who operates independently of the newsroom but takes a paycheck from the publication.” And the direct juxtaposition of how they described both these women gave the impression that Totenberg should be beyond critique from within.
According to NPR, “McBride's role as NPR's Public Editor is supported by researchers and editors from both organizations [NPR & Poynter], significantly expanding the public editor's ability to respond to audience concerns and suggestions.”