Back in 2012, when presidential politics was sane, I wrote a Lingua Franca post called “The Word the Media Won’t Use.” The word was lie. And (speaking as a journalism professor), I approved of the media’s reluctance to use it.
To assert that someone has lied is to say that he or she has uttered, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The “false statement” part is the proper province of journalism, and the media is on that case. The deal-killer is “intent to deceive.” Roughly the second week of my introductory-journalism classes, I tell students that two things will get them thrown into journalism jail: predicting the future and reporting what anyone thinks, intends, wants, or hopes. “You do not have a crystal ball and you are not a mind reader,” is my go-to line. It is not entirely impossible for a good reporter to write that a statement is a lie. But to do so, the reporter would not only have to establish the statement as false but also have the speaker on the record or on tape acknowledging an awareness of that falseness. A perjury conviction wouldn’t hurt, either.
How sunny and naïve that seems today! In 2012, Donald Trump was a reality-TV personality and real-estate hustler who had distastefully injected himself into national politics the year before by persistently insinuating that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Today, he is the Republican candidate for president. His onetime rival Ted Cruz called him “a pathological liar” in response to the false assertions, false innuendo, and repeated contradictions of Trump’s own earlier statements, by which his campaign was marked from the very beginning. (Read my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum here on the rhetoric of Trump’s prevarications.) I think it was the last tendency — and along with it the seeming certainty he was aware that he was saying completely conflicting things on different occasions — that emboldened the media to deploy the l-word.
Given the scope, scale, and frequency of Trump’s falsehoods, I think they made the right call.
It started with opinion columnists — liberals like Paul Krugman, E.J. Dionne, and Eugene Robinson, as you would expect, but also conservatives like The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, who in August chronicled Trump’s many many flip-flops about his relationship with Vladimir Putin (or lack thereof), dropping the gerund form of lie four times in a paragraph:
As with so many things, the question for Donald Trump is: Was he lying then or lying now? It’s equally likely he was lying back in 2013 and 2014 to make himself sound more important as it is that he is lying now to avoid sounding too chummy with the authoritarian he openly admires and consistently praises.
However, the big hurdle was for the mainstream media to use lie in its news coverage. The outlet to most visibly clear that hurdle, appropriately, was The Newspaper of Record, the Times. As the fateful headline popped up on my computer on September 16, I took a screenshot.
In an interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR, Executive Editor Dean Baquet of the Times explained why the paper made the move in reference to this particular story:
BAQUET: I think the moment for me was the birther story, where he has repeated for years his belief that President Obama was not born in the United States. That’s not an obfuscation; that’s not an exaggeration. I think that was just demonstrably a lie, and I think that “lie” is not a word that newspapers use comfortably.
INSKEEP: Sure, and let’s talk about why that is. When I think about the word “lie,” it seems to me different than even saying something is false or wrong because when you say “lie,” you are suggesting you know the person intentially told an untruth. You feel you know their mind.
BAQUET: And I think that was the case with birther[ism]. I think to say that that was a “falsehood” wouldn’t have captured the duration of his claim, to be frank, the outrageousness of his claim. I think to have called it just a falsehood would have put it in the category of the usual political fare, where politicians say, “My tax plan will save a billion dollars,” but it’s actually a half a billion and they’re using the wrong analysis. This was something else. And I think we owed it to our readers to just call it out for what it was.
As is so often the case, other outlets followed the Times’s lead. In California this weekend, I snapped a photo of the front page of the Sunday Los Angeles Times.
In a normal election, a candidate repeatedly described as lying would push back. This is not a normal election. Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway — about whom Bill Maher memorably said, “She’s done an amazing job potty-training him” — appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday. Mark Halperin, a panelist, asked about Trump’s statement that the moderator of that night’s debate, Lester Holt, is a Democrat, when in fact he’s a registered Republican. Conway repeatedly tried to divert the conversation to other topics, but finally said that Trump “didn’t lie” about Holt.
“Um, I think he did,” said co-host Mika Brzezinski.
“Mika, a lie would mean that he knew the man’s party registration,” Conway said.
So: A campaign manager, in defense of her candidate, basically says that he makes stuff up and spews it out there without regard to whether or not it’s true.
That’s exactly what Trump did during the debate when he kind of jaw-droppingly said to his opponent, Hillary Clinton, “You’ve been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” As National Security Editor Phil Ewing of NPR succinctly wrote in the network’s fact-check of the debate, “Clinton has not been fighting ISIS her entire adult life as it has existed in its present form only since 2013-2014.”
Like I said, not a normal election.
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