The Wall Street Journal's Editor: Beware Calling Donald Trump a Liar

Gerard Baker thinks the president lies all the time, but insists that applying that appellation puts too high a burden on news organizations.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Last January, Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, urged caution in using the word “lie” to label untruths spoken by Donald Trump. Last week, The New York Times published an opinion article titled “Trump’s Lies” that purported to be a definitive list of the president’s falsehoods, invoking the word “lie” repeatedly.

What did Gerard Baker think about that?

Katie Couric asked him at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, eliciting an extended defense of his reticence in using the l-word that began with an admission that he personally thinks that Trump lies a lot.

“What I think is not really important,” he began. “I think the president probably lies a lot, right? I think the president makes things up at times. I think I've got a fair amount of reasons for believing that.”

However, he continued:

The difference is not what I think or what I might express and an opinion or even given reasonable grounds to believe, but what my reporters can report as facts. And if you're going to report as a fact that something is a lie, you have to know that it's not only an untruth, not only a falsehood, you have to be able to be able to impute two things in the mind of the speaker: one, knowledge that it is actually untrue; and two, a deliberate intent to deceive.  

And I can see circumstances, perhaps, that Donald Trump or indeed anybody else for that matter, that they have enough evidence to know that it's truth, and that I would be able to infer from their falsehood that they were telling a lie. But it's a pretty high bar. Our reporters are very careful about imputing motives to people that go beyond the evidence. We are very strict about this. We don't impute jealousy or hatred or various other things.  It is a judgment making a call about whether or not someone is lying. And again, I don't rule it out completely. I said I'm careful about it. And I think that most people should be careful about it.

A bit later, he offered one final argument for exercising great restraint:

It's all very well to talk about the president, but these are standards news organizations would have to routinely apply. Chief executives lie, they mislead, they misrepresent. All politicians as we've just said lie and mislead.

I mean, God help us, members of the media sometimes lie.

Are we going to be in a position where we're going to have to test every single statement that's put to us not on the grounds of truth and falsehood, which is what we do, but in an attempt to understand the intent and the motivation of the speaker? I think it's an extraordinary burden to place on us.

And in the end, by the way, I don't think it really actually matters hugely, because if you demonstrate, as we do, President Trump says something, these are the facts, we can demonstrate that these are the facts, we can demonstrate that he had probable reason to know the facts––what do we actually further gain for a skeptical reader, a reader who still isn't prepared to give it the appellation a lie, what do we gain by saying, you know what, it's a lie? And now you'll be convinced that it's a lie?

People want to apply this to this president. And he speaks a lot of untruths, I agree. But if you think about the consequences, we would be required to make that moral judgment, that judgment about whether someone was deliberately misleading, in every single story we do.

And I just think that's an impossible burden.