Just 14 months ago, The Fix's Philip Bump wrote a smart piece under the headline “Why the media won't say Donald Trump is lying.” This was shortly after Trump made the false claim that “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on rooftops when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.
Fact-check after fact-check found Trump's statement to be a wild exaggeration, but Bump correctly observed that most press coverage allowed for the possibility (however slim) that the business mogul merely suffered from a bad memory.
“In that case,” Bump wrote, “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.”
Over the weekend, Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerard Baker laid out the same argument against calling Trump a liar, during an appearance on NBC's “Meet the Press.” He even referenced Trump's claim about Muslims celebrating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But in a sign of rapidly changing expectations, Baker received sharp criticism from many journalists, who suggested that his reluctance to use the L-word is weak.
Here are Baker's remarks:
I'd be careful about using the word “lie.” “Lie” implies much more than just saying something that's false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead. I think it's perfectly — when Donald Trump says thousands of people were on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11 celebrating, thousands of Muslims were there celebrating, I think it's right to investigate that claim, to report what we found, which is that nobody found any evidence of that whatsoever, and to say that.
I think it's then up to the reader to make up their own mind to say, “This is what Donald Trump says. This is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what? I don't think that's true.” I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they've lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are — like you're not being objective.
Journalists unnerved by Baker's stance include former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who called it “deeply disturbing” in a Facebook post.
“It is not the proper role of journalists to meet lies — especially from someone of Mr. Trump's stature and power — by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms. Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting. When something is, in fact, a demonstrable lie, it is our responsibility to say so.”
Here at The Washington Post, Plum Line blogger Greg Sargent wrote that news outlets have a responsibility to employ the “lie” label whenever “Trump is telling a falsehood even though it has been demonstrated to him to be a falsehood.”
“If we don't call that 'lying,' " Sargent wrote, “or if we don't squarely and prominently label these claims as 'false,' don't we risk enabling Trump's apparent efforts to obliterate the possibility of agreement on shared reality?”
Rather and Sargent make strong points, but it is worth remembering that Baker's approach seemed prudent and conventional a short time ago. If calling an incoming president a liar is the right thing for news outlets to do, it is also an unusual and uncomfortable thing to do.
Even New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet, whose publication has described some Trump statements as “lies” in recent months, said on NPR in September that " 'lie' is not a word that newspapers use comfortably.”
The Times has nevertheless used it, as have the Guardian, Politico, NBC, Vox, Vanity Fair, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, Red State, Slate and Salon, among others. What was taboo barely a year ago is now standard, and an editor who clings to traditional restraint is called soft.
It's just another way in which Trump has changed the media — and quickly.