President-elect Donald Trump, as we know, is a flagrant and profligate teller of untruths. The Pulitzer-winning nonpartisan website PolitiFact reports that fully 69 percent of Trump’s public statements during and after the campaign were either mostly or entirely false. We find ourselves in uncharted territory.
Which is why a simmering debate over whether journalists should label his falsehoods as lies broke out on the Sunday talk shows.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd pressed Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker on the L-word. Baker demurred, saying that when a statement is branded a lie, “it implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” He added, “I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they’ve lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are not being objective.”
And on CNN’s Reliable Sources, NPR’s head of news, Michael Oreskes, was similarly disinclined to call Trump a liar, telling host Brian Stelter that his goal was to offer his audience “fact-based journalism,” and that “whenever we get into these judgments, these characterizations, we use them as introductions to the story, we push people away from them. And that’s an unfortunate truth. I actually wish it wasn’t true.”
Those statements sparked a furor among anti-Trump elements on Twitter. Trump’s most vehement critics accused Baker, Oreskes, and anyone who agreed with them of cowardice for refusing to call a lie a lie. Most of it is not worth recounting, but an exchange between veteran journalist Tom Stites and Arizona State University journalism professor Dan Gillmor covers a lot of ground with great efficiency:
Stites: “Lying hinges on intent. What seem to be lies could also be delusions or the result of strange mental processes.”
Gillmor: “When someone repeatedly demonstrates sheer contempt for truth, ‘lying’ feels like an appropriate word to me.”
So how do we wade through this thicket and come up with a workable understanding of journalism’s obligations toward an incoming president who has such a tenuous grasp of the truth?
Let’s start with this: a lie is a knowing falsehood. According to Dictionary.com, a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.” That last part, as well as the secondary definitions, suggest that it’s at least possible to label a non-deliberate falsehood as a lie. Still, it seems clear that intentionality goes to the heart of what it means to lie.
Which is why I partly agree with Gerard Baker. Where I disagree with him is his claim that calling Trump a liar makes it appear that “you’re not being objective.” Baker is using the commonly misunderstood definition of “objective,” which essentially (and wrongly) means to be balanced at all costs, even when balance does not serve the truth.
But as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism, the original meaning of objectivity was a rigorous and precise pursuit of the truth. Once the truth has been determined, there is no need to balance it with something not true. As Kovach and Rosenstiel put it, over time the term objectivity “became so mangled it began to be used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”
Michael Oreskes’s remarks strike me as problematic because they suggest we shouldn’t label false statements as lies because we don’t want to offend our audience. It’s hard to think of a worse reason for steering clear of the term. Unfortunately, a fear of offending is precisely what came through in too much of NPR’s political coverage last year.
My own sense is that we should generally refer to Trump’s (or any powerful person’s) misstatements of fact as falsehoods rather than lies—not because we want to be “objective,” not because we don’t want to give offense, but because we are not mind-readers. Calling something a lie should be reserved for occasions where there is evidence that the person speaking falsely knows he is speaking falsely.
As an example of one of those rare instances in which we can impute intent, consider Trump’s lies—yes, I am calling them lies—that President Obama was not born in the United States. On Reliable Sources, Oreskes was joined by Carolyn Ryan, the New York Times’s senior editor for politics, who explained why her paper’s editors decided to describe Trump’s birtherism as a lie when he kind-of-sort-of walked away from it last summer. “We wanted to call him out as a liar,” she said, “and wanted to do it on the front page and be very blunt about that.” After all, there was considerable evidence, including Trump’s own shifting statements, to suggest that he knew right from the beginning that he was propagating a falsehood.
But I want to cite another of Gerard Baker’s examples to show how difficult it can be to know whether someone is lying or not: Trump’s claim that he saw “thousands” of Muslims on rooftops in New Jersey celebrating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Now, this might be a whole lot scarier than a mere lie, but my gut sense is that Trump believes it to this day, and is getting ready to act on that belief.
A couple of random observations that I think further illuminate how difficult it is to separate falsehoods from lies.
• Last summer Hillary Clinton claimed in an interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace that FBI director James Comey had said she told the truth about her use of a private email server. In fact, Comey had said Clinton told the truth when questioned by the FBI. He pointedly avoided offering an opinion as to whether she had told the truth in all instances, including at public events. And by all indications she had not been entirely truthful. Should that statement by Clinton—whose overall PolitiFact rating was quite good—have been called a lie?
• Executives at mainstream news organizations agonize over whether they should label falsehoods as lies—and they should. But another form of journalism, fact-checking, often depends on calling every false statement a lie, regardless of whether there is any evidence. For instance, the worst rating on PolitiFact’s Truth-o-Meter is “Pants on Fire,” which is not a shorter version of “Questionable statement! Questionable statement! Pants on Fire!” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker goes even further, rating statements on a scale of one to four Pinocchios.
The goal of journalism should be to report the news in a way that’s accurate and true, which are related but not identical concepts. For instance, it is accurate to report that Trump said X, but we’re not being truthful if we fail to point out that X is false.
Falsehoods should be called out in the strongest possible terms. That’s our obligation to the public. But when we label a false statement as a lie, we’d better be sure there is sufficient evidence to back it up.