The president lies. That sentence has arguably been true as long as there have been presidents. The question on The Masthead’s forums in recent days has been, what should journalists do about it? Today’s issue picks that question apart from several angles: Are journalists really reluctant to use the word “lie”? How do Atlantic writers and editors report about lies? And why do we expect so much honesty from the president to begin with?
Are Journalists Actually Reluctant to Use the Word “Lie”?
By Caroline Kitchener
In a recent tweet, Maggie Haberman of the New York Times called out President Donald Trump for telling two “falsehoods.” That comment launched a debate over whether, and how often, journalists should call the president’s false statements, “lies.” “The reality,” Haberman wrote, “is that what he does can be hard to label because, as anyone who has worked for him will tell you in candor, he often thinks whatever he says is what’s real.” Haberman’s point reflects the New York Times’ official position. “I actually think using the word ‘lie’ is a crutch. Real journalism is to actually challenge things factually,” said Dean Baquet, the paper’s executive editor, last year.
But that’s one paper. How reluctant are other journalists to call out Trump’s lies, really? And how do habits today compare to journalists past? While I couldn’t find much hard data on the topic—according to multiple experts, none exists (Masthead members, deploy!)—I consulted a few media specialists.
American journalists use the word “lie,” they told me, far more often than the controversy about the use of the word suggests. In a 2017 paper for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oslo-based journalist Heidi Taksdal Skjeseth compared how U.S. and French journalists handle presidential lies. She identified three camps of American media with different policies on how to write about presidential lies in news coverage: those that don’t use the word (NPR, The Wall Street Journal), those that try really hard not to use the word (The New York Times, The Washington Post), and those that use it all the time (The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and a whole lot of others).
The first two camps include some of the country’s oldest and most prestigious media platforms, but they are now a comparatively small part of the media landscape (ahem, Facebook). Writing for a younger, more liberal audience, online-only outlets like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, Skjeseth wrote, are less concerned with alienating a portion of their readership with the word “lie.” If an outlet only has a few years of history, rather than hundreds, she added, it’s easier for it to change its journalistic conventions to “[adapt] to a new environment.” Skjeseth also found American journalists are on the whole more willing to use the word “lie” to describe a president than their French counterparts—a discrepancy she largely attributed to the particular nature of Trump, who, she said, “[delivers] untruths on an unprecedented scale.”
David Greenberg, a professor of media and history at Rutgers University, believes that journalists today assign the term “lie” to presidential statements more often than their predecessors. While the Trump era has inspired many journalists to recommit themselves to principles of objectivity, Greenberg told me, Trump also took office at a moment when journalists are eager to develop a personal brand on social media. “Reporters who are news analysts have historically been uncomfortable offering personal opinions, but that has changed with Twitter,” Greenberg said. That makes it harder for journalists to know when it’s appropriate to make a value judgement and, by extension, when it’s okay to call something a lie.
So perhaps Haberman is debating a phenomenon only relevant within her own institution and a few others like it. “I have written stories about [Trump’s] lies, falsehoods, whoppers, half-truths, salesman-like stretches,” she wrote. Whatever they decide to call the president’s lies, Haberman, and the rest of the press, will surely keep writing about them.
Should The Atlantic use the word “lie”? Our newsroom weighed in on the forums.
Matt Thompson, executive editor:
As an editor, I don’t think there’s a “yes” or “no” answer to this question. Language is context-dependent. A member on the forums offers the good example of the distinction between “lie” as a verb (e.g. “The politician lied”) and “lie” as a noun (“The politician spread the lie”). The former might require understanding the subject’s state of mind, while the latter can be true regardless of what the subject believes.
I think the aim of precision in language should encourage us to use the verb “lie” when we know someone misstated the facts in a purposeful effort to deceive, but to accommodate the ambiguity when we don’t know that to be true. We don’t want to dilute its meaning by overuse either. The word should have meaning, and it should be used with intention.
Conor Friedersdorf, politics and national affairs writer:
My thinking has been as follows: “lie” should clear a higher bar than untruth, as it implicates the mental state of the speaker. Sometimes, mental state can be inferred from the facts—for example, Trump drafting a letter, then putting it out under his doctor’s name, is enough to know that he was aware that his doctor did not write the letter as he claimed. Thus, a lie. Other times, I am inclined to categorize a statement as an untruth the first time a public figure makes it, as with Trump’s inauguration crowd claims, but if the public figure continues to make the same claim after it has been debunked so thoroughly that the facts are not in doubt, and so exhaustively that the public figure cannot plausibly be unaware of them any longer, then I think “lie” is the right choice.
I don’t think my general views on when to label a lie a lie have changed with Trump, but there are particular items that have now been probed so exhaustively that I categorize them as lies he is telling rather than untruths.
The idea of honesty is baked into the presidency
In 2007, journalist Carl Cannon wrote a history of presidential lies in The Atlantic. They go back to the beginning, he argued.
Admonitions against lying are as old as Western civilization itself, but the Ninth Commandment was applied to the presidency by the first presidential biographer—a parson named Mason Locke Weems, who not only launched the cult of the president-as-truth-teller but did so retroactively with that famous, but unverifiable, cherry-tree story. Ever since, historical revisionism notwithstanding, American schoolchildren have been raised on the standard of a U.S. president who didn’t lie—couldn’t lie—even as a six-year-old boy. Abraham Lincoln was said to have walked miles as an Illinois store clerk to return a few cents’ change. His “Honest Abe” nickname, which predated his presidency, was an advantage that his opponent Stephen Douglas tried to erase by calling him “two-faced.” (Lincoln’s response: “I leave it to [my audience]. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”) Mark Twain deadpanned that Americans held their presidents to a standard few mortals could meet. “I am different from [George] Washington,” he would say. “I have a higher and grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t.”
Need more? Here’s a “presidential lies” reading list
By Matt Thompson
Atlantic journalists have written on the topic a number of times. Let’s take a quick tour.
Jim’s take: Probably the most salient (and earliest?) piece directly addressing the question is from Jim Fallows, who wrote a post in late November of 2016 called, “How to Deal With the Lies of Donald Trump: Guidelines for the Media.” In this post, he’s considering the question of how journalists should behave in the wake of one particular norm having shifted:
Our journalistic and political assumption is that each side to a debate will “try” to tell the truth—and will count it as a setback if they’re caught making things up … None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.
Jim followed this one up with some additional thoughts from readers the next day, including this perspective.
Following the advice of James Fallows will make your core readership feel righteous and satisfied and dare I say smug, but it will further erode everyone else’s trust in you. To Trump supporters, it will look like a partisan attack by the liberal media, but there’s probably no hope of winning them over anyway, so let’s put them aside for now. To many other people—regular folks who simply don’t have time or skills to weigh evidence and evaluate sources—it will just look like opposing assertions.
Adrienne’s take: Adrienne LaFrance, now editor of TheAtlantic.com, wrote an excellent piece on this subject. Adrienne considers the practices of various newsrooms, and concludes:
Today, the challenge of figuring out what is real—and often doing so before an audience in real time—is why journalists must be careful, as ever, with facts and words. Fairness matters. But so do accuracy and credibility. Which is why it’s just as important for journalists to call a lie “a lie” when they hear one.
David’s approach: One of our most prolific writers has wrestled with the language of untruth several times in writing about the president. David Graham has tended to sidestep the is-he-lying question, and instead ask questions about what motivates Trump’s falsehoods, what his untruths are intended to accomplish, and what the effects of these untruths are. Here’s some of his pieces that address the subject:
- January, 2017: Why misstate something as easily disprovable as the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd?
- June, 2017: What effects do fact checks have on the president’s supporters?
- August, 2017: Why did Trump needlessly overstate his efforts to modernize and expand America’s nuclear arsenal? (By this point, David takes care to note a pattern in the president’s dissembling: “It’s a classic Trump moment,” he writes, “an untruth that is relatively unimportant on its own but disturbing and confusing as part of a pattern, and extremely easy to debunk.”)
- October, 2017: Might Trump believe the false things he says?
- November, 2017: Has Trump stopped believing it was his voice on the Access Hollywood tape he apologized for? If so, does evidence matter at all to his understanding of the truth?
- May, 2018: How do small falsehoods factor into Trump’s reality distortion?
Today’s Wrap Up
- Today’s Question: What have you found persuasive in the conversation about presidential lying? Readers in our forums have assembled an extensive list of non-Atlantic writing on the question. Jump in and recommend a new take. (Or email us and we’ll post for you!)
- What’s Coming: On Monday, June 25, Masthead members will be convening with author (and Masthead member himself) Jonathan Haidt to talk about The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Details here.
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