Calling Trump a liar sets a thorny precedent

Photo by Gage Skidmore

“You calling me a liar?”

It’s the archetypical male testosterone-fueled challenge, and yes, the media is calling Donald Trump a liar. Isn’t that what journalism is all about, telling the truth? New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has said it would be “almost be illiterate to have not called the birther thing a lie,” referring to Trump’s trafficking in Obama birth-certificate conspiracy theories long after they were debunked. The Times, famously, called Trump a liar on its Sept. 17 front page, freeing up other media outlets to do the same.

A precedent has been set. Which is great. But it’s also complicated.

What about Vladimir Putin? What about Bashar al-Assad? What about Iranian mullahs and public figures on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian dispute? What about dissembling CEOs? What about Holocaust-deniers and climate-change contrarians and the players in a host of other domestic and global conflicting-narrative conflicts? Are their lies going to be debunked, with the L word utilized just as it was for Trump?

 “I felt that there was a double standard going on,” says Simon Plosker, managing editor of Honestreporting.com, a pro-Israel media watchdog group, when he saw the Times’ treatment of Trump. Plosker contends that lies frequently flow from Palestinian figures, including officials of Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, which promotes the Arab viewpoint on domestic and overseas issues, feels the same way. What bothers Berry, however, are public statements made by Israeli officials that she believes are false.

The challenge for the media is in defining what makes a lie. An expletive that used to be confined to op-eds, blogs and partisan screeds—remember Al Franken’s satirical 2003 tome Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them?—is now being deployed in the world of straight-down-the-middle, “mainstream” journalism. By using a word that comes from the vocabulary of advocacy in its own voice, the Times and other news organizations have taken the truth-telling standards of the news business to a new level. Until the rise of Trump, only on rare occasions—criminal convictions and instances of plagiarism and falsifying resumes—were words like “lie” ever used by the media in describing events in the news.   

In a Sept. 20 column, Times Public Editor Liz Spayd quoted politics editor Carolyn Ryan describing the circumstances in which the newspaper will use the L word. She distinguished lies from “spin, exaggerations and squabbling between candidates that are commonplace in politics,” and said “it is not a word we will use lightly.” It won’t be used for “matters of opinion, but only when the facts are demonstrably clear.” There must be “intentionality,” she said. Lies must be deliberate. The word won’t be used “to police more frivolous disputes among political candidates or political factions.”

Under Ryan’s criteria, Putin and a host of lower-echelon officials would seem to be solid candidates for being called liars. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has repeatedly denounced Russia for telling “outright lies,” most recently at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Russian bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo. She used the same “outright lies” phraseology in a speech while visiting the Ukraine in 2015, denouncing the Russians for their incursions into that country, and previously in 2014, telling the Security Council that “they have manipulated, obfuscated, and outright lied.”

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former ambassador to Ukraine, began a March 2015 op-ed for CNN.com by saying “Vladimir Putin lies. Blatantly. Publicly. And, apparently, without chagrin.” He cited an interview in which the Russian leader denied that troops blocking Ukrainian troops in the Crimea were Russian. Putin clung tenaciously to that fib, but weeks later admitted that he had given the order to take the Crimea in February 2014. 

Pifer, however, is not insisting on Putin getting the “Trump treatment,” though he had no objection at all to it being used against Trump. The GOP candidate is an exceptional case, and he sees Putin in that same category. But when he saw the word “lie” in the headline, “it jumped out at me,” he says. “It suggested to me that a threshold had been crossed… . It’s a term that—I don’t want to say it’s less serious, but my guess is if readers see it used more commonly, does that cause them to devalue the seriousness of the particular paper they’re reading?” He thinks the media already does a good job of communicating Russian dishonesty without explicitly calling Putin and the Russians “liars.”

The lie debate is hardly limited to national or geopolitics. A host of long-running battles on nonpolitical health issues—circumcision, the merits of alternative medicine, and a host of others—are the subject of “lie” accusations. One combatant in the anti- and pro-“vaxxer” wars, Karen Ernst, was also startled when she saw the Times and other publications begin to label Trump as a liar. She is executive director of Voices for Vaccines, a pro-inoculation group, which has been at odds with pressure groups seeking to tie vaccines with childhood diseases.

Ernst’s problem with media coverage of the vaccination controversy is the tendency to engage in “false equivalency,” putting established scientific fact on a par with unproven faux-science. “A CDC [Centers for Disease Control] doctor says that vaccines are safe, but this mom in the suburbs is saying that they’re not safe,” says Ernst. Even though she believes the anti-vaxxers traffic in lies, “I don’t know if I would be totally comfortable calling people liars,” Ernst says.  For one thing, she believes that anti-vaccination falsehoods are mainly promulgated by people who are well-meaning and do not know that they aren’t true.

Junk science and conspiracy theories are a running theme in American history. Trump’s contention that the elections are “rigged” would sound familiar to any journalist who has followed the rants of conspiracy theorists trafficking in what all kinds of rubbish. “Remember the naked shorting jackasses? They were just wrong,” notes Roddy Boyd, who heads the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, a nonprofit reporting organization that exposes financial wrongdoing. Boyd was referring to conspiracy theorists who blamed pretty much every recent financial calamity, including Bernie Madoff, on a form of trading in which stock is sold but not borrowed. Naked shorting was targeted in 2008 testimony by the CEOs of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and was blamed by others for the entire financial crisis, a claim not substantiated—or even mentioned—by the report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Then as now, the truthfulness of big business is regularly called into question, and may also turn out to be grist for use of the L word. One good example is Theranos, a newly minted biotechnology company that promised a whole new approach to blood testing. The CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was the subject of adulatory press coverage, including a Fortune cover story. But it all came crashing down in October 2015, when a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Theranos was using other companies’ technology and that the company’s claims did not pan out.

Should financial journalists take a tougher line on CEOs who lie? Boyd doesn’t think so. Part of his reason is strictly practical. Corporations, he notes, are only too willing to sue news organizations for libel to protect their reputations, and sometimes do so even when they are in financial straits.

Boyd can’t conceive of calling anyone a “liar” in a SIRF article without “irrefutable proof,” even in the unlikely event the attorney who vets his articles would approve. And even if “lie” or “liar” surmounted that barrier, he doesn’t think it’s necessary. “Certain words don’t say much in public discourse,” notes Boyd. What might pass muster in a barroom conversation, or in a blog or on Twitter, just doesn’t belong in a news article, he says.

Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press correspondent in Israel and author who wrote an article for The Atlantic critical of press coverage of the region, believes that the media’s willingness to expose untruths is often a function of the reporters’ preexisting political agenda. “It’s easier for the press corps to call a lie a lie when it’s the story they want to tell,” says Friedman. He believes it would be more difficult for many in the press to call an environmental or human rights organization a liar than it is to use the same term for a Republican presidential candidate.

“The question is not really why they’re calling Donald Trump a liar when he clearly is, but why it’s so rare,” says Friedman. “We as reporters are confronted by lies all the time coming from all kinds of people, and certainly in this place it’s just a blizzard of misinformation from all sides—from the Israelis, from the Palestinians, and from pretty much everyone else in the region.” He believes that reporters find it much more difficult to “call out untruths by the sides to which they are sympathetic.”

One example he cites is Gaza, in which he believes the media is manipulated by Hamas, which controls the territory. He notes that the group has denied firing rockets from civilian areas. “All reporters know that they’re firing rockets from civilian neighborhoods but you don’t see Hamas called liars.” He believes that term will be used against targets that the press is “predisposed to be suspicious of.”

The problem with calling out lies by a Hamas official is that one can be expelled from Gaza, Friedman notes. The outcome can be even more daunting for news coverage displeasing the Iranians—as Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian learned. He was imprisoned and tortured for nearly eighteen months.  So Friedman is not impressed by the self-congratulations being exchanged in the US media for calling out Trump’s lies. There are, he notes, far more difficult targets, and going after an unpopular presidential candidate hardly does one’s career any harm. “The press is very brave when there is no risk,” says Friedman.

David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning former Times reporter and the author of a recent Trump book, believes that there needs to be a serious discussion within journalism about what to do about political and business leaders who are lying. He views the problem as being engrained within the profession—a general tendency to accept the truth of what people in authority say. Another problem, he says, is simple absence of understanding of the subject matter. “Most journalists don’t have the confidence or deep knowledge to write authoritatively,” he says.

So while he was “thrilled and flabbergasted” to see the Times call Trump a liar in a front-page headline, he noted that much of what is now appearing on Trump had been widely known but not previously reported. He expressed frustration at how false narratives have a way of sticking in the public consciousness, and can be repeated again and again.

One notorious case is the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden. In his 2003 book Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, British historian Frederick Taylor described how casualty figures were grossly inflated by Nazi propagandists, who lied about the city’s numerous war industries, and later by the East German regime. Misinformation about Dresden continued to be spread long after the war, and was disseminated by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five and historian David Irving, whose Holocaust denial is the subject of the newly released film Denial

Pifer sees value in use of the word “lie,” but he believes it needs to be used cautiously and with an eye toward the consequences. “It’s the kind of thing that will have value in sending a message to the reader as long as it’s used sparingly,” he says. “If we get to a place a year from now in which every other headline says this and that person said a lie, then the readership begins to doubt all the media.”

Which is precisely what Trump wants, isn’t it? Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly exploring a post-election Trump TV network which would cash in on his attacks on the “dishonest and distorted media.” If so, calling Trump a “liar,” by serving the Trump narrative, promotes his commercial interests.

True, the media has wound up in this predicament because of Trump’s serial falsehoods. It’s a quandary. It’s ironic. But on the Internet, it’s known as getting “trolled.”  

Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that The Huffington Post was among the publications to follow The New York Times in labeling Trump as a “liar.”

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Gary Weiss , a New York-based investigative journalist, is the author of books examining organized crime, Wall Street, and the radical right. He can be reached via Twitter @gary_weiss.