NPR's Supreme Court Story Takes Another Turn

Reporter Nina Totenberg defends it, rejects public editor's clarification
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 21, 2022 11:00 AM CST
NPR's Nina Totenberg Fires Back at Public Editor
NPR Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg in a file photo from outside the Supreme Court.   (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The saga over an NPR report on the Supreme Court continues. Veteran reporter Nina Totenberg is dismissing criticism from her outlet's public editor about a story Totenberg wrote about justice Neil Gorsuch's decision to forgo a mask while on the bench. Here's how it has unfolded:

  • Original report: Totenberg reported that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, because she has diabetes, didn't feel safe being near people who were unmasked. "Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form asked the other justices to mask up," Totenberg wrote. She didn't specify what form this request took, but she wrote that all the justices except Gorsuch complied. "His continued refusal since then has also meant that Sotomayor has not attended the justices' weekly conference in person, joining instead by telephone," wrote Totenberg. (Original story here.)

  • 3 justices respond: Gorsuch and Sotomayor issued a joint statement after the story came out. "Reporting that Justice Sotomayor asked Justice Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It is false," the justices said. "While we may sometimes disagree about the law, we are warm colleagues and friends." (Totenberg's story didn't say that Sotomayor asked him to wear a mask, notes the Washington Post; it said Roberts made the request "in some form." Roberts issued a statement of his own: "I did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.")
  • Public editor: NPR public editor Kelly McBride (who operates independently of the newsroom) also weighed in on what she described as a "misleading" story in need of clarification. "Exactly how did Roberts, in some form, ask or suggest that his colleagues cover up?" she wrote. "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.'" McBride concluded that "Totenberg and her editors should have chosen a word other than 'asked' ... It's not a nuanced word." See her full assessment here.

  • Totenberg responds: She's not having McBride's criticism. Both she and NPR's news division are standing by her story, and its wording. "She can write any god---- thing she wants, whether or not I think it's true," Totenberg tells the Daily Beast of McBride. "She's not clarifying anything!" Her take on the justices' statements: "A non-denial denial from two of them doesn't work," she says of the Sotomayor-Gorsuch statement. As for Roberts, he "just refuses to accept the fact that I did not say that he requested that people do anything, but in some form did." The story, she adds, is "absolutely valid."
(More NPR stories.)

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