Beyond the L-word: Lessons from four years of covering Trumpian defiance of fact

As we have entered the post-Trump era, marked by the forty-fifth president’s absence from the White House, from Twitter, and from most press coverage, we are still left with the repercussions of a presidency that has deeply fractured the nation, both politically and epistemically. A shared fact base or even universally accepted means for determining what is and is not true seem to have slipped out of our shared heritage; QAnon conspiracies and science conflictingly coexist in the public sphere. For journalists committed to pursue, reveal, and defend whatever is left of the “truth,” the question is: Where do we go from here?   

Months after Joe Biden’s inauguration, it has become clear that media skepticism and fantastical conspiracies have outlasted his predecessor and promise to remain a challenge to professional journalism. Still, there is a silver lining: most news organizations have, indeed, made it through four years of “fake news” accusations and uncountable presidential falsehoods. Reflecting on the media’s treatment of Trump’s truth-bending rhetoric may offer lessons for dealing with future presidents—or, for that matter, any prominent figures—who mislead the public for their personal advantage.

 

Truthful reporting and the L-word

Throughout his campaign and presidency, legacy newspapers have been accused of failing to call Trump a liar. A few days after the 2020 election, former HuffPost editor in chief Lydia Polgreen tweeted, “The L word on the NYT homepage right now,” along with a screenshot of the Times headline suggesting Trump had been lying about the vote count. Her followers all seemed to leap to the same response—“Finally!”—suggesting they had not only noted but also felt frustrated that the paper had previously been hesitant to label the president a liar. Why did it take the mainstream media so long to get around to calling out Donald Trump for lying?     

The premise of the question is not quite right. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and others have long documented and kept running totals of Trump’s falsehoods. Did they frequently say “he’s a liar” or “he lied”? No. Would they have been more faithful to reality if they had? No. In fact, we think that would have simplified and distorted something far worse and far more difficult to explain. 

Bald-faced lying by presidents has plenty of notable precedent. Eisenhower denied the fact that the US authorized flights by U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union; candidate John F. Kennedy proclaimed a “missile gap” that put the Soviets’ arsenal ahead of the Americans’ (even after he was informed no such gap existed); and, of course, Richard Nixon denied his knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. But none of those men convinced themselves that they alone could measure reality and that all others were interlopers or enemies of the people. In other words, when they lied, they knew that they were intentionally ducking reality, or claiming a clear truth when there was only uncertainty, or hiding a plot in which they were deeply entangled.

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For Trump, the problem has been much worse and far more daunting for journalists: there’s little evidence that he credits reality with any authority over his world. On NBC’s Today show, former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci referred to Trump’s “reality distortion field.” It appears that Trump has over a lifetime accepted that claims about reality are to be judged by whether they advance his desires. If the assertion, rumor, speculation, conspiracy theory, or trial balloon works to keep him in the public eye, to win the applause of devoted fans, to rile up the liberals he despises, or to displace other topics from the headlines, it’s good enough for him. To name this as “lying” scarcely does justice to the way Trump warped his life and presidency. 

We all stray from the truth. We tell our children there’s a Santa Claus, we pad our CVs; we tell an old friend just back from the hospital that she looks great. Less innocently, we hide an affair from a spouse, our drinking from friends, our gambling from family. 

Yet, although we all are guilty of lying at times, the term itself is one of intense moral reprobation. In most contexts, and certainly in news reporting, calling someone a “liar” is an accusation, a clear act of condemnation. It is evident that Trump’s assertions and reality typically do not match up. As he uttered or tweeted words that were often reckless, improvised, and generally unsupported, disbelief and frustration were bound to grow. Naturally, the media reporting that Trump spread “baseless insinuations,” “inaccurate claims,” or “falsehoods” felt deeply dissatisfying. The word that signals both untruthfulness and reproof of it is “lie”—and many people yearned to see it in headline type on the front page.

 

Trump, the Truth, and The New York Times

We searched the Times website for US news articles that used the word “lie” (or some derivative of it) to describe the president’s statements. Among the articles published from when he announced his candidacy, in 2015, to his departure, in January 2021, we identified just over fifty articles in which the Times news section explicitly used the L-word in the reporter’s own voice. (Opinion writers were markedly more willing to accuse the president of lying.) 

On a few occasions, the Times’ avoidance of the L-word was overcautious, leading to some clumsy descriptions. In an article from February 2016, White House correspondent Maggie Haberman reported that “Donald Trump denies saying what he said about John McCain,” which can only not be described as lying if Trump had somehow lost all recollection of calling the late senator a “loser.” Similarly, in September 2020, as Bob Woodward published his book Rage and along with it recordings of his interviews with Trump, revealing that the president had knowingly downplayed the pandemic throughout the early months of 2020, the L-word was noticeably absent from the Times’ reporting. In several articles, the paper observed that the president “privately understood how deadly the coronavirus really was even as he was telling the public the opposite.” This qualifies as “lying”—even if, as might be argued in this case, there could have been good reason to lie to avoid contributing to a public panic. 

Despite routinely drawing criticism for its scarce adoption of the L-word in relation to Donald Trump, the New York Times was among the first legacy publications to use the term to describe the president’s claims. Over the course of Trump’s candidacy and presidency, the Times decided to identify his assertions as “lies” on two key occasions: In September 2016, as Trump finally conceded that Barack Obama was born in the US, the Times’ front page, using the word for the very first time, read “Trump Gives Up Lie but Refuses to Repent.” Throughout his candidacy, Trump had challenged President Obama’s citizenship, yet it was not until he publicly retracted and corrected these statements that the Times acknowledged the birther conspiracy to be a “lie.” 

Trump’s incessant claims of voter fraud made up a second set of blatant falsehoods that the paper has also declared a “lie.” Following his inauguration, the president—who lost the popular vote—insisted that millions of unauthorized immigrants had voted in the election, leading the Times to publish an article titled “Trump Won’t Back Down From His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts.” Curiously, however, the paper also ran a story that described then–White House press secretary Sean Spicer affirming that “Trump Believes Lie of Millions of Illegal Voters,” which is conceptually impossible. Lying implies intentional deception. Can speakers be considered liars if they are convinced of their own hoax? 

 

What’s the word?

In a 1963 piece for the ASNE Bulletin, journalist David Starr declared, “Objectivity, we realize now, includes calling a lie a lie.” As interpretive reporting began to be more widely accepted—and then defended, not as a falling away from objectivity but as a deeper practice of it—Starr continued, “Objectivity includes putting facts in perspective.”

In the context of conspiracists like Trump, reporters should thus not simply call out statements that are manifestly lies—they must also lay out just how dangerous this type of indifference to the truth can be. To say that Trump has, on occasion, lied would be factual. To further put this fact in perspective would entail pointing out that, beyond that, Trump’s relationship to the truth has been wildly inconsistent—one day he may, indeed, simply lie; on other days, Trump may even rely on established facts; sometimes he may, in turn, make up his own facts. To call him a liar whenever he lies is not enough.

Journalists need a new vocabulary to describe the varying facets of falsehoods with the level of nuance that the current landscape of truths and untruths requires. Many regard Trump as the embodiment of a “post truth” era, where emotions or a sheer will to believe hold more influence than facts. We think “post truth” is close to characterizing Trump’s condition, but it is still misleading. It suggests that we have entered a new era that supersedes a world based on “truth.” “Post” implies that whatever comes after this prefix no longer is, that we have now entered a time that follows and, importantly, replaces it. And there is enough in postmodern theorizing or in sociological studies of “knowledge” or of science to confirm that naive belief in some unassailable truths that science affirms or that common sense reveals are now behind us and we are, all of us, doomed to run off epistemological cliffs like Wile E. Coyote. 

Yet truth has not departed, expertise is not gone—and it is entirely possible for someone to reject expert input in one circumstance and accept it in another. Since these states can coexist (not only within society but even within an individual), we don’t think it is right to refer to our (or Trump’s) relationship to truth as “post.” 

Perhaps a more fitting prefix can be found in “extra.” One way to more faithfully denote Trump’s rhetoric might be to call it “extra factual,” a term political scientist Kelly Greenhill has coined and written about. Greenhill understands extra-factual statements to be “either unverified or unverifiable at the time of transmission” and to typically “take the form of emotionally resonant narratives” that are “intended to influence their recipients’ attitudes and behavior.” This term is a more appropriate and precise characterization of Trump’s rhetoric: Like “post truth,” “extra factual” centers science, truth, facts, and expertise as the norm. But unlike “post truth,” the term does not suggest that truth and facts have left the stage—rather, that the speech act in question is situated outside of a still existing realm of objective, scientific truth. 

Granted, “extra factual,” as of now, sounds purely descriptive and carries none of the negative imputation conveyed when we accuse someone of “lying” or when we describe something as “post truth.” However, before “post truth” was popularized and proclaimed the word of the year in 2016, most people did not associate anything negative with it, either. Words have to enter public discourse and be used in consistent contexts to reach the depth of meaning we seek from a term that can adequately describe the way Donald Trump and other fabulists, conspiracists, and hoaxers compromise the truth.  

So if there is anything we have learned from the past four years (and more) of Trumpian defiance of fact, it’s that the notion of truth has become much more complicated, and that it’s time we find the words to describe (and thus deal with) what is going on. We have also learned that American society tolerates and may even smile at some falsehoods. Was the circus “the greatest show on earth”? In advertising, that’s known as puffery, an assertion unverifiable on its face and not worth two seconds of fact-checking. What is “locker room talk”? What is bullshitting? What is a sales pitch? Too often it may be a well-selected set of facts that intentionally distorts a fair-minded portrait of the product: intentional disinformation without a technical misstatement. What is a fabulistic construction, a wish or dream or mythology parading as reality? These are not just lies.

Truthfully reporting about falsehoods can be complicated business. Montaigne wrote that the truth is clear and singular, but that its opposite has “a hundred thousand shapes and a limitless field.” Even as Trump has left office, extra-factual conspiracies continue to be perpetuated by him and others who have prioritized power, status, and influence over the value of shared reality. It will be journalists’ responsibility, as the front line of resistance to the varied array of reality denials, to call out liars on their deception (including, when appropriate, President Biden)—but it also entails finding, or creating, the language to describe utterances much more nefarious than a simple lie.  

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Michael Schudson and Jueni Duyen Tran are contributors to CJR. Schudson is a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His latest book are The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 and, with C. W. Anderson and Leonard Downie Jr., The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know. Jueni Duyen Tran is a PhD candidate at Columbia Journalism School, where she researches how platform affordances and features affect social media users' content sharing decisions.