The Debate Over Whether Journalists Should Call Donald Trump’s False Statements ‘Lies’ Is a Red Herring

By
Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

Last weekend, Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker sparked a good-sized media uproar with some remarks he made on Meet the Press. Discussing Donald Trump’s propensity to say things that aren’t true, he told Chuck Todd, “I’d be careful about using the word lie. Lie implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” He explained that he viewed the best strategy as to present the facts in a straightforward manner so readers could say, as he put it, “This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports.”

Many liberal commentators and readers interpreted Baker’s response as a call for he-said-she-said journalism, such as a ThinkProgress take which argued that “Editor of nation’s second-biggest newspaper says he will not report Trump lies, even if he lies.” Naturally, the outrage spilled onto Twitter and Facebook as well, with many pundits and journalists — most notably Dan Rather — accusing Baker of telegraphing plans for the nation’s largest paper to enable Trumpian deception for the next four years.

That isn’t what Baker is arguing for, though. In fact, he’s right — journalists shouldn’t reach too quickly for the L-word to describe Trump’s endless false statements. More broadly, the argument over whether they should is a giant red herring that has nothing to do with the grave responsibility borne by the media during the Trump era.

Yesterday, Baker laid out his argument a bit more fully in a column in his paper. He pointed out that “Mr. Trump has a record of saying things that are, as far as the available evidence tells us, untruthful: thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 on the rooftops of New Jersey, millions of votes cast illegally in the presidential election, President Obama’s supposed foreign birth. We can also point out that the circumstances are such that it’s reasonable to infer that Mr. Trump should know that these statements are untrue.”

But there’s a difference between doing so, he argues, and calling these statements lies:

I believe the right approach is to present our readers with the facts. This does not mean presenting a false equivalence between one person’s inaccurate statement and the observable truth, as though they were of equal epistemic value, but a weighing of a claim against the known facts. When Mr. Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, we noted, high up in our report, that there was no evidence for such a claim. No fair-minded or intelligent reader was left in any doubt whether this was a truthful statement.

But I’m not sure the story would have been improved by our telling the reader in categorical terms that Mr. Trump had told a “lie.” In fact I’m confident that the story—and our reputation for trustworthy and factual news reporting—would have been damaged. The word “lie” conveys a moral as well as factual judgment. To accuse someone of lying is to impute a willful, deliberate attempt to deceive. It says he knowingly used a misrepresentation of the facts to mislead for his own purposes.

This is correct, and its correctness stems from the simple point that evaluating a statement’s truth value is different from, and simpler than, evaluating whether the speaker knowingly lied. If I come up to you and tell you “Countless Muslims are streaming across the Mexican border as part of a giant terrorist plot,” it won’t be hard for you to determine, upon fair review of the evidence, that this is a crazy, crazy belief that no one who calls himself a journalist should spread (let alone someone in a position of real power). But am I lying about it? That’s a lot more complicated. Even if you can point me to evidence debunking the claim and I discount that evidence, well, a lot of people aren’t particularly good at evaluating evidence. We live in a country where staggering numbers of people believe evolution and climate change are hoaxes, and, yes, that almost-ex–President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.

This isn’t to let actual liars off the hook, but simply to point out that many people genuinely believe false things. Trump is a particularly complicated case for journalists because of the sheer, unbelievable volume of false things that come out of his mouth, and because he has enthusiastically peddled some of those falsehoods, including the Obama birther allegations, for years and years. I myself have written about his propensity for “lying.” But that was a judgment call; I was happy to make it but would be very leery about leveling judgment against journalists who interpreted things differently — as long as they weren’t hesitant to assertively point out that false statements made by Trump were false.

In other words, aggressive fact-checking can exist regardless of whether or not the fact-checker chooses to then ascribe intent to the utterer of false claims. The Chuck Todd question that sparked Baker’s controversial statements conflated the two issues: “[P]eople always say, ‘You’ve got to fact-check, you’ve got to fact-check,’” he said to Baker. “There isn’t an agreement on what the facts are. And this is yet another challenge for you and everybody here. Do you feel comfortable saying so-and-so lied? You know, if somebody says just an outright falsehood, do you say the word, lie? Is that important to start putting in reporting, or not?” In the first half of the quote, Todd is talking about fact-checking; in the second half, he’s talking about ascribing intent. Those are two different things.

In his column, Baker defended himself in part by pointing to The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Trump’s false claim that millions of illegal voters juiced Clinton’s victory in California. The subhed of that piece reads “President-elect offers no evidence of claim that he otherwise would have won the popular vote,” and the third graf reads “Voting is restricted to U.S. citizens, and no evidence has emerged so far of widespread voting by illegal immigrants.” In other words, the Journal more or less did what it should: It called out a false statement from Trump. And this seems well in line with Baker’s much-ridiculed argument for presenting readers with “This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports.

Was Trump lying when he said that millions of voters voted illegally? Who knows? Such rumors had been percolating through the gonzo fake-news networks where we know he gets a terrifying amount of his information. Maybe he believes them, maybe he doesn’t. We can argue all day about what is going on in the extremely unusual and conspiratorial brain of Donald Trump at the precise moment he says something that is false. It just feels like to do so is to miss the point — reasonable people can differ on unanswerable questions about epistemology and psychology. As long as journalists plainly state that false claims he makes are false, we are doing our jobs.

It Doesn’t Matter Whether Trump’s False Claims Are ‘Lies’