"Lie" is a very strong term — stronger than "false statement" or "factual inaccuracy" or just about any other way of saying something is untrue. News outlets generally avoid labeling even the most galling distortion or fabrication a "lie" because the word suggests that the person who spread the incorrect information was not merely mistaken, but did so intentionally.
That's a very hard thing to prove, so journalists almost always figure it is better to just call out what is wrong and let readers/viewers/listeners judge for themselves how to label it.
And so it's kind of a big deal that the New York Times recently decided that "lie" is the proper way to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said. The paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, explained the shift to NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview that aired Thursday.
INSKEEP: Has something changed in the way the paper covers and writes about Trump?
BAQUET: Yes, the simple answer is yes. Politicians often exaggerate their records, obfuscate, say they did something great when it wasn't so great. I think in the last few weeks, he's sort of crossed a little bit of a line where he's actually said things — I think the moment for me was the birther story, where he has repeated for years his belief that President Obama was not born in the United States. That's not an obfuscation; that's not an exaggeration. I think that was just demonstrably a lie, and I think that "lie" is not a word that newspapers use comfortably.
INSKEEP: Sure, and let's talk about why that is. When I think about the word "lie," it seems to me different than even saying something is false or wrong because when you say "lie," you are suggesting you know the person intentially told an untruth. You feel you know their mind.
BAQUET: And I think that was the case with birther[ism]. I think to say that that was a "falsehood" wouldn't have captured the duration of his claim, to be frank, the outrageousness of his claim. I think to have called it just a falsehood would have put it in the category of the usual political fare, where politicians say, "My tax plan will save a billion dollars," but it's actually a half a billion and they're using the wrong analysis. This was something else. And I think we owed it to our readers to just call it out for what it was.
Depending on your perspective, the Times's move is either overly bold or long overdue. In any case, it marks a significant change in Trump coverage because it appears not to be a one-time thing. During the Republican National Convention in July, CNN's Chris Cuomo told Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman at the time, that their interview could not move beyond Melania Trump's plagiarized speech because the campaign kept "lying" about it. That was notable, but it was a fluke. CNN has not used the word "lie" on a regular basis since then.
But last week, the Times also used the word "lie" in a story about Trump's tax plan:
A few hours after Donald J. Trump publicly backed away from a $1 trillion tax cut for small businesses, campaign aides on Thursday privately assured a leading small-business group that Mr. Trump in fact remained committed to the proposal — winning the group’s endorsement.
The campaign then told the Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank it asked to price the plan, that Mr. Trump had indeed decided to eliminate the tax cut.
Call it the trillion-dollar lie: Both assertions cannot be true.
More important, from a semantic standpoint, was the absence of an alternative, non-lie explanation for the inconsistency. A campaign cannot simply be mistaken about its own position on a yes-or-no question. There was no doubt, so the Times gave the Trump campaign no benefit.
As the Times gets more comfortable with the "L" word, it will be interesting to see whether other news outlets do the same.