The Media Today

Lie? Falsehood? What to call the president’s words

May 29, 2018

The weekend began with a series of tweets from the president, and, like so many times before, several of them contained factually incorrect information. “The Failing @nytimes quotes ‘a senior White House official,’ who doesn’t exist,” one began. That official does, in fact, exist, and had provided a background briefing to hundreds of reporters on Thursday afternoon.

The Times responded with an article titled, “Trump Falsely Says Times Made Up Source in Report on Korea Summit Meeting.” Referencing that story and another tweet in which the president misrepresented his administration’s immigration policy, star White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted that “Trump told two demonstrable falsehoods this AM.” And that’s where another round of lie vs. falsehood started.

Critics were appalled at Haberman’s deliberate use of a term that falls somewhere short of “lie,” and the argument consumed political media conversations on Twitter for much of the weekend.  Some defended her—and the Times’s—judgment, but many (including actor John Cusack) impugned her credibility and accused her of being soft on the administration. I’ve argued in the past that we need to do away with euphemisms like “racially charged” when the president says something demonstrably racist. But the debate over when to use the L-word is nuanced. Trump provides steady stream of untrue statements, but are all of them lies?

ICYMI: The Fourth Estate shows how far The New York Times has come

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The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale elegantly laid out the difficulties in reporting on Trump’s falsehoods, noting that a lie involves intention. “In some cases, it’s safe to say Trump is intentionally trying to deceive. In other cases, it’s far less clear that he’s being wrong intentionally—because, with Donald Trump, you regularly can’t rule out the possibility that he is confused or ignorant,” Dale writes. “If we journalists are going to present ourselves as arbiters of truth, we have to stick to what we know is true. And that means not calling something a lie when we don’t have a reasonable certainty that Trump’s intention is deception.”

In the case of Trump’s claim about a source “who doesn’t exist,” journalists don’t know whether Trump was in the loop. “It is not clear whether the president was simply unaware of the actions of his own senior staff or if he knowingly ignored the truth,” Michael Shear wrote Saturday in the Times’s follow-up on the tweet.

Whatever label journalists choose for the president’s false statements, it’s obvious that Trump doesn’t always tell the truth. After all, the Times Opinion section, which has no compunction about calling them “lies,” kept a running tally of the falsehoods through the fall—it numbers in the hundreds. Whether each is intentional or unintentional, the more important job for the journalist is to provide context and evidence to refute them. Calling a statement a “deliberate falsehood” instead of a “lie” isn’t an attempt to excuse the behavior; it’s an attempt to accurately, if perhaps overcautiously, describe what’s going on.

Below, more on Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth, and how journalists respond.

  • What’s in a name?: “We need to distinguish between a deflection, an exaggeration, and a straight-up lie,” CNN’s Brian Stelter said on Reliable Sources.
  • Case studies: While Dale argues that there are differences between lies and falsehoods, he writes that “making the right decision case-by-case means… that ‘lie’ should be used a lot more than almost every major US news outlet currently uses it.” He provides several examples on either side of the debate.
  • Caught in a firestorm: Mediaite’s Joe DePaolo rounded up some of the reactions to Haberman’s initial tweet.
  • Trump’s conspiracy theories: The Times’s Haberman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis examine Trump’s fondness of “baseless stories of secret plots by powerful interests.” They write that Trump’s “talk of conspiracies has also gained currency within a Republican Party establishment that once shunned it.”


Other notable stories

  • CJR’s newest print issue, “Working,” hits newsstands today. The magazine focuses on what it’s like to have a job in journalism today, and we’re excited to share its contents online over the next couple of weeks. Up first, CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope, with “So you wanna be a journalist?
  • Awful news from North Carolina, where two journalists were killed while reporting on the Greenville area’s weather conditions. WYFF’s Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer died Monday when a tree fell on their SUV, the station reported.
  • The National Enquirer isn’t Donald Trump’s only friend in the world of tabloids, reports The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright. Cartwright looks at how Harvey Levin’s TMZ went MAGA, providing cover for Trump as a candidate.
  • CJR’s Brendan Fitzgerald speaks with The New York Times Magazine’s recently appointed poetry editor Rita Dove, who explains what poetry might grant unsuspecting news readers.
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan writes that Elon Musk “should stick with his plans for colonizing Mars” and get out of the media criticism business. For The Daily Beast, Erin Biba explains what it’s like when Musk’s online fanbase comes after a reporter—especially a female journalist—who criticizes him.

RELATED: Calling Trump a liar sets a thorny precedent

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.