Nowadays, many in the news media are no longer bothering to grant Trump the benefit of the doubt. In routine news and feature stories, Trump’s dishonesty carries no fig leaf. It is described baldly.
CNN: “The Mueller report: A catalog of 77 Trump team lies and falsehoods.”
Chicago Tribune: “Why are Trump’s lies not ruinous to him? Because truth can be in the eye of the beholder.”
The New Yorker: “It’s True: Trump Is Lying More, and He’s Doing It on Purpose.”
As recently as last summer, a debate still raged within newsrooms: Could a presidential statement, no matter how blatantly false, be deemed a “lie” since, by definition, the word implies awareness of falsity and intent to deceive? How can journalists know what’s in Trump’s mind, even when he repeatedly says transparently untrue things, such as “the wall is under construction right now” on the southern border with Mexico, or that the United States pays “a disproportionate share” of the cost of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?
This dictionary definition of “lie” still keeps some media organizations from applying it to Trump. FactCheck.org, the nonprofit fact-checking organization, hasn’t used the term in the past 10 years, according to Director Eugene Kiely. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, despite having documented more than 10,000 “false or misleading” claims by Trump, has used it only once.
“You can’t get into someone’s head,” said Glenn Kessler, the Fact Checker’s editor and chief writer. “Trump especially is very situational, so he may actually believe what he is saying, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
But Kessler thinks the sheer volume of “false and misleading” statements by Trump may have led other journalists to stop giving the president the benefit of the doubt. Kessler used the word for the first time last year in describing Trump’s denials about paying hush money to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, given that an audio recording and other evidence clearly showed that Trump spoke falsely.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on this story. But last year, in an exchange with CNN host Chris Cuomo, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway took umbrage at the suggestion that Trump lies. She called it a “slur” to say the president didn’t tell the truth about his relationship with Daniels.
Prompted by Trump’s frequent excursions from the truth, the Fact Checker late last year created the “Bottomless Pinocchio
,” a new category for falsehoods that have been repeated so often “that there can be no question the politician is aware his or her facts are wrong.”
The most prominent early adopters of “lie” were the New York Times and the Associated Press, both of which slapped a big L on Trump’s “birtherism” assertions during the presidential campaign. After Trump’s inauguration, the Times also called his statement that he would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for voter fraud a lie (headline: “Trump Won’t Back Down from His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts”).
But the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, has said his newsroom strives to use the word “judiciously” because using it repeatedly “could feed the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”
Post Managing Editor Cameron Barr also said The Post is “careful” in its use. “When evidence tells us that a person had such a motive in making a false statement, it’s accurate to say it was a lie,” Barr said.
One of the first mainstream journalists to systematically brand Trump’s comments as lies was Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief. Dale, who this week joined CNN as a reporter on the fact-checking beat, began compiling a database in 2015 and started counting the false statements the following year. He uses the word “lie” frequently, and he freely refers to Trump as a “serial liar.”
“I think both are objectively true,” Dale says. “It isn’t a departure from objective journalism to use these words. . . . Why should the rules of objective journalism mean we have to dance around the obvious, objective truth? If we’re going to get readers to trust us, we have to be straight with them.”
Dale uses “lie” more frequently when Trump repeats a false claim multiple times. “Perhaps the first couple [of instances] were confusion,” he notes. But after dozens, and sometimes hundreds of instances, “I think the active disregard for accuracy is sufficient” grounds for calling the statement a lie.
However, Dale thinks the terminology isn’t as important as simply calling out statements as wrong or inaccurate in the first place. “News stories and segments are still being completed without readers and viewers being informed, in any way, that the president made 10 or 15 or 35 false statements in the speech being covered,” he said.
Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization, agreed: “It’s much more important to point out why Trump is wrong and what the actual evidence shows,” she said.
PolitiFact doesn’t use the word “lie” explicitly, although its most extreme rating — “Pants on Fire” — certainly implies it, Holan acknowledged. It also awards a “Lie of the Year,” which spells out things rather plainly (PolitiFact has given the award to Trump three times in the past four years).
Holan says she worries the public is being “pummeled” with headlines that suggest they’re being lied to, which “can breed cynicism at a minimum.”
But Dale has no such qualms. “If someone committed 100 felonies, we don’t report that he committed two felonies and 98 nonlegal activities, we just say it was 100 felonies. Trump lies all the time. If we’re only going to point out some of them, he wins with the other ones.”