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Fact-Checking NPR's Reports On Vegas 'Violence'

Thousands of people gather at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas for the Nevada State Democratic Convention on May 14, 2016.
Michelle Rindels
Thousands of people gather at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas for the Nevada State Democratic Convention on May 14, 2016.

NPR's use of the word "violence" and claims of thrown chairs in recent stories about Saturday's Nevada Democratic Party state convention have come under criticism by supporters of candidate Bernie Sanders.

Listener Ya'akov Sloman, of Mishawaka, Ind., writes:

"In the aftermath of the convention a single report of 'throwing chairs and rushing the stage' by an openly partisan 'journalist' became the story for every major news outlet. In particular, the dramatic image of 'throwing chairs' seemed to strike reporters as great stuff; so it was repeated.

As far as my extensive research can determine (and I am still looking) there is no other evidence of 'thrown chairs'. This one counterfactual account changes the tone of stories containing it dramatically. If it did not happen, claims of 'violence' which depend on it are simply not sustainable."

A number of listeners and readers have written with similar concerns (not all so polite). The reports they are concerned about include this one from today's Morning Edition, with the headline, "Nevada Incident Could Make It Difficult For Sanders' Supporters To Back Clinton" and yesterday's online-only story, "Bernie Sanders Defends Supporters After Rowdy Protests In Nevada."

The online story, citing the source of the claims, reported:

"But chaos followed after Sanders supporters allege they were denied being seated at the convention and that the state party chairwoman, Roberta Lange, was slanting the rules in favor of Clinton. In the end, Clinton ended up with 20 delegates out of the state to Sanders' 15.

Sanders supporters, believing they had been treated unfairly, rushed the stage, threw chairs and were shouting obscenities, according to veteran Nevada journalist Jon Ralston. Even after the convention concluded, many refused to leave and had to be escorted out by security."

As Sloman notes, other outlets, including The Associated Press, also reported that chairs were thrown. While I have no reason to doubt that reporting, in the extensive video posted on social media in the aftermath of the convention I've so far found none of a chair being thrown. One video shows a chair being lifted in the air. Other videos do show angry Sanders supporters rushing toward the stage and shouting obscenities.

Talking Points Memo this afternoon tried to get to the bottom of what happened and the report was inconclusive: "There has been disagreement between Sanders supporters and those critical of their behavior Saturday over how violent the state convention actually was, and who is to blame. Descriptions of the day's events recount shouting, interruptions, crude names and epithets being lobbed at party officials, and an evening that culminated in a group of Sanders backers rushing towards the stage and even flipping chairs. Only some of those incidents could be backed up by video evidence posted by those at Saturday's convention and other reports."

I asked Beth Donovan, NPR's senior Washington editor, to respond to the concerns. She wrote, "Several members of our staff watched live video that showed a man brandishing a chair. Nevada analyst Jon Ralston, who was in the room and over time has been a very reliable source, reported that a chair was thrown. We okayed using and sourcing his reporting." But, she added, "When Ralston's reporting came under question, we adjusted our language," by not repeating the word "thrown." Instead, Keith's report this morning referred to "physical skirmishes." (It also quoted Nevada Sen. Harry Reid as referring to "violence," which he did, indeed, do.)

Donovan went on, "So, was there violence? There was pushing, shoving, and screaming, a chair was brandished and a great deal of hostile and obscene language used. Several editors and reporters saw and heard the video live and later. People on the ground described it as violence. It doesn't seem a stretch to me."

Donovan and I disagree on this; "violence," which NPR more often uses to describe events in war zones, seems too strong a term to me based on the evidence I have seen so far. And the politics team's own decision to avoid the word "thrown" renders this online-only introduction to Keith's piece misleading, unless other eyewitnesses come forward to clarify the events: "Sen. Bernie Sanders is answering for violence at the Nevada Democratic Party's state convention, where his supporters threw chairs and hurled obscenities as Hillary Clinton claimed the most delegates."

One final note: I do not agree with those who emailed that this reporting is evidence of an NPR bias against Sanders, a claim which many, many listeners and readers have been making to me and online over the course of months. But that is only all the more reason for NPR to be particularly precise in reporting on events such as these.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.
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