The sheer volume, that is, of misstatements, falsehoods, misleading assertions. But not “lies,” per se. Policy at FactCheck.org, said Robertson at the symposium’s panel discussion, is to avoid that term. Michelle Ye Hee Lee, who along with Glenn Kessler double-teams the fact-checking operation at The Post, said that her newsroom has the same policy. And Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact, tells the Erik Wemple Blog in a post-panel email that his group also steers clear.
The exception, of course, is PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year.” “Lie of the Year we thought was a catchy phrase. The ‘award’ often encapsulates more than one falsehood,” emails Sharockman. “Day in, day out we avoid the use of the term lie because we rate statements not people.”
Asked to elaborate on FactCheck.org’s aversion to “lie,” Robertson cites the industry-standard explanation: “Was there intent to deceive?” That’s a question that’s tough to answer, and it’s required to prove the definition of “lie.” There’s another layer to the rationale, too: “Our official policy is the ‘intent’ argument, but … if we said somebody lies every other day, to me it sounds like name-calling,” says Robertson.
That’s not to say that Robertson hasn’t heard the cries for “lies.” “My question for people who want us to say this: Why? Why is that so important to you?” says Robertson. “I mean, is that valuable in some way for us to say somebody lied? Or is it more valuable for us to explain, ‘This was false and let us explain why. Let us give you some other information.’ I think that larger context is maybe more important than the label.”
How about this: Both are important. When the president states falsehoods that have been contradicted numerous times by well-distributed reporting — sometimes directly to him in interviews and the like — it’s fair to reach the conclusion that he has lied.
Robertson: “It’s not unusual at all for politicians not to back down after they’ve made a claim that five fact-checkers have written about and said it wasn’t true.” In fact, it’s more “not unusual” than ever.