Big lie, little lie, and the media’s role in telling the difference

Photo credit: Tristan Schmurr

Before Donald Trump disavowed birtherism during a media-enabled infomercial for his hotel on Friday, BuzzFeed was already calling him out. “Three lies about birtherism to look out for in Donald Trump’s speech,” read the title of its preview. The headline of a front-page analysis in Saturday’s New York Times used similar language: “Trump Gives Up A Lie but Refuses to Repent.” The next day, Sunday talk show anchors, including CBS’s John Dickerson and CNN’s Jake Tapper, similarly called birtherism a “lie,” the latter in an interview with campaign surrogate Chris Christie, who dutifully insisted Trump hadn’t been pushing the conspiracy regularly since 2011.

“Regular readers know we shy away from using the word ‘lie,’” The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote soon after, “but clearly Christie is either lying or he is so misinformed that he has no business appearing on television.”

All politicians bend the truth to some extent, though such communications typically earn passive descriptors such as “untruths,” “falsehoods,” or the like. The argument is that it’s impossible for journalists get inside inside a subject’s head to gauge intent. With Trump, for example, it’s difficult to say whether he is actively deceptive or just so shamelessly unprepared that it gives off the tangerine-colored aura of deception.

“Trump broke that system—you can’t say it’s a lie because you don’t know his motivations—with something that was so blatant there was no other explanation,” Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, says of the birther episode. “He blew it up. In a way, it was inevitable that we come to this moment, because there were underlying norms that allowed this system to exist.” 

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Among them: That politicians stay within acceptable bounds of verification, while journalists largely refrain from passing judgement on borderline truthfulness. Trump’s campaign has pushed the bounds of this understanding with a steady accumulation of innuendo and “falsehoods” over the past year. His birther lie went over the edge not only because it was demonstrably false, but also for the zeal with which Trump had repeated it contrary to all available evidence. His audacity was akin to when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford insisted he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, when President Bill Clinton said he didn’t have sexual relations with that woman, and when President Richard Nixon claimed he wasn’t a crook.

“You can’t say that smoking doesn’t harm your health,” Rosen says, “because then you’re insulting the journalist.” 

Trump’s campaign would appear to be an opening for news organizations to add value for their audiences by coming to firmer conclusions on politicians’ statements. Or, to borrow a phrase often bastardized by outsider politicians, telling it like it is.

There is certainly some movement in this direction. The Times published another story in Saturday’s paper calling out Trump for a “trillion-dollar lie” when telling different interest groups different tax policy proposals. As Times Editor Dean Baquet explained in a Quartz interview Tuesday, the newsroom has “decided to be more direct in calling things out when a candidate actually lies….It is a real word and we will use it when warranted.” Public Editor Liz Spayd, former editor and publisher of CJR, added in a column that “lie” was warranted in the case of birtherism but should be used rarely. 

“The long-running saga over Barack Obama’s birth certificate was clearly a lie,” says the Post’s Kessler. “The first fact-check I did of Donald Trump [at the Post] was about the birth certificate—it was 2011….Obviously the more frequently someone says something that is clearly factually false, the stronger the case is that the person should realize that or know they are lying.”

Digital media that are often more openly opinionated in their news coverage, including The Huffington Post, have embraced the term in describing Trump’s campaign. Take the Republican’s insistence in a NBC presidential forum this month that he initially opposed the Iraq War, a statement disproven countless times. Whereas the Post’s news story and fact check debunked it as a “false claim,” Vox described it as “blatant lying.”

“[Trump] may well have convinced himself he was against the war, and he hasn’t bothered to go back and read what he said,” Kessler says, allowing Trump the utmost benefit of the doubt. “At this point, he should know that there’s a lot of dispute about this statement. So when he says it, you could probably make the case that he’s lying.”

You could make a similar case when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton claimed twice this summer that the FBI said that her answers about using a private email server were “truthful.” Clinton later backpedaled on the statement, which received four Pinocchios from Kessler, by saying she had “short-circuited” her answer. Clinton similarly acknowledged she made a “misstatement” in 2008 when falsely describing how she landed “under sniper fire” in Bosnia in 1996. And so on.

But the trick is in weighing the magnitude of Clinton’s collective truth-bending to that of Trump. The Republican candidate has drawn an unprecedented number of “Pinocchios” and “Pants-on-Fire” ratings—both convey “lying,” albeit indirectly. Politifact, keeper of the latter designation, even honored Trump with its 2015 “Lie of the Year” as a sort of a campaign-long achievement award. Since Friday, Trump hasn’t clarified when and why he decided Obama is an American citizen. It’s almost as if he’s caught in a lie that’s foundational to his political support. 

Despite the recent round of liar, liar, however, most mainstream journalists continue to tread lightly. Similar care is taken with labels like “racist” and “sexist,” despite the fact that Trump has said many objectively racist and sexist things. They are charged terms, to be sure. But they also connote final judgment: Once a liar, always a liar.

Trump hasn’t yet crossed mainstream media’s thresholds for such terms because those thresholds don’t yet exist. His birther lie sparked that conversation en masse—the first brick, to speak in Trump’s terms, in a wall between truth and deceit. The border will be porous until that big, beautiful project is complete. 

*Correction: The article originally stated Clinton said she “short-circuited” during a description of the FBI’s findings on her private email server. She actually said she “short-circuited” the description itself. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.