Does Donald Trump lie?
Of course he does. He says things that aren’t true, knowing that they’re not true. Even his supporters – at least some of them – acknowledge this.
Can all of Trump’s falsehoods be called lies? Well, that’s a little trickier. Some might be things he actually believes. Some might be more about stubbornness than deceit. Sometimes, with Trump, it’s hard to say for sure what’s going on.
That’s essentially the point Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker made earlier this month in an appearance on “Meet the Press.” Baker was asked by host Chuck Todd why his newspaper is reluctant to call Trump’s falsehoods “lies.”
“I’d be careful about using the word ‘lie,’ ” Baker responded. “ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”
This did not go over well – not just with anti-Trump fire breathers, but with a surprising group: Journalists. Former CBS news icon Dan Rather called Baker’s remarks “deeply disturbing.” Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, citing “these perilous times,” urged journalists to “speak the truth when the truth was plain.” Others had a more sinister theory – that Baker was merely the puppet of his conservative employer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
That newspapers-bowing-to-corporate-bosses thing isn’t new, by the way. It’s what conservatives have alleged – and liberals have scoffed at – for the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
But the Baker dustup is about more than a newspaper’s reticence to call out Donald Trump’s lies. It’s about people so horrified at Trump’s victory – and so fearful of his presidency – that some lash out at anything that falls short of affirming those horrors and fears.
Another example: Last week, when House Republicans initially voted to strip the powers of the Office of Congressional Ethics, they were met with a backlash that included a cautionary tweet from the president-elect. When Republicans backed down, at least some media reported that Trump’s tweet might have had something to do with it.
That, said critics, was media “malpractice,” and they pointed to House members who said that constituent complaints, not Trump, had caused them to reverse course. But that’s exactly what a representative might say if he or she wanted to appear responsive to voters (and not a stooge of the incoming president). Media were right to note that Trump’s tweet might have played a role, too.
None of which means that media won’t rise up against wrongs in a Trump presidency. For starters, columnists and editorial writers have already been unafraid to offer their opinion on Trump and the truth. We’ve been doing that kind of thing for more than a century.
As for reporters and editors? They have and should point out falsehoods from Trump. If anything, journalists can do it more aggressively instead of falling back on their historical tendency to give inaccurate statements and observable truths something close to equal treatment, in an effort to be “fair.”
But here’s another truth: People trust media less than ever. Fewer people think we’re fair, and sometimes we give them good reason. If reporters decide to take moral stands that include calling falsehoods “lies,” we risk a greater deterioration of that trust. We also risk weakening the role we still believe we can claim – as people who pursue facts, with hopes that they’ll reveal truth. Elusive as that may be.