NPR says its debunked reporting on SCOTUS mask issue was 'solid,' word choice 'misleading'

The initial story prompted rare media statements from the three justices who were involved

Published: January 21, 2022 7:57am

Updated: January 21, 2022 9:25am

NPR is mostly standing by a report from Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in which she wrote that Justice Sonia Sotomayor was opting to join the court remotely because Justice Neil Gorsuch would not wear a mask after being "asked."

On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a rare joint statement disputing the report that there was bad blood between them over the mask issue.

"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 statement reads.

And Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement saying he had "not request[ed] Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench," directly refuting NPR's reporting on the matter.

In a "Public Editor" column published Thursday, NPR clarified that it stands by Totenberg and her reporting, but admits her word choice was "misleading."

"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," reads part of the column by Kelly McBride, before launching into an investigation of the word "asked" in Totenberg's story. 

NPR, or National Public Radio, is privately and publicly funded non-profit media group frequently accused of having a liberal bias.

McBride also writes: "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.'

"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)."

Totenberg's story was almost immediately challenged.

Fox News anchor and chief legal correspondent Shannon Bream said one of her court sources said," There have been no blanket admonition or request from Chief Justice Roberts that the other justices begin wearing masks to arguments. The source further stated Justice Sotomayor did not make any such request to Justice Gorsuch."

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