Just north of the campus of Ohio State is a bar called The Library. It does not take a college student long to recognize the utility of that name; a parent calls and asks where you are and you can simply say, "The Library," letting your factual answer ameliorate any concerns about your deception, should you not yet be at the point of drunkenness where such concerns wouldn't even occur to you.
Here's the question, then: Is that a lie?
It's factually accurate, yes, but it's offered to deceive someone else. In the estimation of Sissela Bok, a philosopher who wrote a book about lying (called, cleverly, "Lying"), it's a lie. A lie, she writes, is "any intentionally deceptive message which is stated." Stating that you are at "The Library" instead of "at a bar" is deceitful, and intentionally so. It's a lie.
Redirecting onto another track, we'll adjust the question: When Donald Trump says that he saw "thousands" of Muslims celebrating on the streets of Jersey City during the 9/11 attacks, is he lying?
The media has taken a lot of flak for not stating that he was. Feel free to peruse the Twitter maelstrom, if you wish, but the essence is simple. Fact-checkers, like our own Glenn Kessler, have found no evidence of anything even close to what Trump claimed. Why, then, can't we simply say he's lying?
One reason is embedded in the library/Library question above. If Donald Trump believes that he saw what he says he saw, is he lying?
Let's say that Trump, like Ben Carson, remembers seeing people celebrating the terror attacks in the Middle East but -- unlike Carson -- still thinks they were on the streets of Jersey City. In that case, Trump isn't telling a lie. He's incorrect, and it's not a great look for a presidential candidate, but he's not intentionally being deceptive. He's not lying, he's just wrong.
The problem that arises is that we can't know his intentionality. Unless Trump comes out and says something equivalent to, "I was trying to deceive people," we can't say with certainty that this was his intention -- no matter how obvious it may seem and no matter how many times in the past we've wondered about his intentionality. One time, the boy who cried wolf actually saw wolves.
There's also the question of exaggeration. In the wake of his comments, defenders of Trump (who are legion) have pointed to other reports of celebrations at different times, in different places and at different scales. If Trump was referring to some other event on another day and at a different scale, was he lying? If he inflated his story to some degree to reinforce his apparent strategy of engendering fear among Republican voters, is that a lie or is it rhetoric?
This overlaps with the practical reason that it's tricky for the media to say that Trump is lying. It is imperative that the media maintain the trust of its audience, however much that trust continues to erode. Declaring that Trump is lying because his words don't match the facts is a judgment call, and a risky one.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Ben Carson's story about receiving a monetary award for honesty while at Yale couldn't be verified. This was on the heels of other stories raising questions about Carson's famous biography and reinforced the idea that Carson had repeatedly made up portions of his life story.
Carson blasted the media, cobbling together bits of evidence that weren't entirely convincing. It wasn't until BuzzFeed tracked down someone familiar with the story that the question was resolved: Carson appeared to misremember (or misrepresent) details of the story, but it was essentially accurate.
That doesn't make the Wall Street Journal wrong. The Journal looked for evidence and, given what they had to work with, couldn't find any. So they presented the known facts and let readers draw contrasts. They didn't call him a liar. Not that it did the Journal much good: Carson continued -- and continues -- to blast the media for its coverage of him.
It's important to remember that the media is in a different position than the one it occupied three decades ago. The emergence of the Internet and social media has made the traditional media one of many outlets for information. Candidates and their supporters can have nearly as much reach as, say, a newspaper. In that world, the word of a newspaper is often simply treated as one opinion in an ocean of them.
That the media tries to present as fair a picture as possible, to use nuance in its assessments has repeatedly been shown to be insufficient armor against attacks from those being criticized, their fans and their allies. The media now has to contend with a subsection of the media itself determined to undermine the public's confidence in what it's reading. That's new. But making judgment calls in reporting wouldn't make that position stronger. If the Journal had called Carson a liar, it wouldn't now be more respected.
Saying Trump is lying, then, offers only downside. It's valid to have an opinion on the issue, but it's important also to present the evidence at hand as completely and quickly as possible, allowing those interested in making up their own minds to do so. What the media can and should do is note that Trump has a habit of manufacturing questionable stories, allowing people to decide for themselves whether or not Trump is lying. But only one man on this Earth knows for certain if Donald Trump is lying when he tells that story, however obvious it might seem to others that he is.
For the media to call him a liar might please those who already dislike Trump, but it doesn't do the media much good. Lying is more complicated than simply stating an untrue fact.
Anyway. If you need me, I'll be at the library.