Is 'Lie' the Truth?

It’s a nice question. Chuck Todd asked it on Meet the Press to Gerard Baker, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal.  Should that paper ever describe things that Donald Trump says as “lies”? 

Mr. Baker did not say never. He did say, “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.” 

As Mr. Baker points out, despite the trail of falsehoods that Candidate and now President-Elect Trump has strewn behind him, the mainstream news media has been reluctant to speak of “lie” or “liar,” even as it has wearily tried to point out the real facts. 

At what point does this reluctance itself become deceitful, especially when, as Mr. Baker says, “it’s reasonable to infer that Mr. Trump should know that these statements are untrue”? Isn’t this systematic surrender to euphemism an injury to the truth? A mistress becomes a “close acquaintance,” a bribe becomes an inducement, dishonesty becomes questionable conduct, lies become campaign rhetoric.

Parents of young children frequently face this confusion about lying. “Billy lied to me when he said it wasn’t going to rain.”  No, dear, Billy was mistaken; lying is something different. Likewise Mr. Baker may have his suspicions, but labeling something or someone in a news story requires a high degree of confidence “about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent.”

And with Mr. Trump, who knows? 

This is not just a matter of his remarkably complacent ignorance. According to people who have worked with him, it is a matter of sincerely believing that whatever he says at any given moment is ipso facto true. 

Actually it’s more complicated than that. Mr. Trump does not appear to see public discourse as a process of establishing a state of affairs and drawing conclusions from them.  He sees it as a process of negotiating--a negotiation that is ultimately a power struggle. As The Art of the Deal advises, you open this struggle with an extreme position, or in public debate the most exaggerated, inaccurate, even preposterous pronouncement available and then, if necessary, you ratchet down. 

Discourse is not, in effect, about truth. It is about power. In this respect, Mr. Trump has a quintessentially postmodern mind. The stricture against lying is about as relevant to this understanding of public discourse as the infield fly rule is to backgammon. 

To fret about the nicety of applying terms like “lie” or “liar” to the man who shouts that Obamacare was based on a lie, to someone who chants “lyin’ Ted” and “the dishonest media … lies,” may seem overly scrupulous. But the news media should not adopt World Wrestling Federation standards. In general, I favor Mr. Baker's reluctance to label what he calls Trump “whoppers” as lies. Let the reader and viewers decide. 

This leaves one problem. Evaluating a leader’s trustworthiness involves more than keeping a scorecard on individual statements. Too often we lack the necessary time or public or “unclassified” information. We cannot be instant fact-checkers.  Ultimately we must rely on some overall judgment on a person’s character, his or her integrity or how his or her mind works. Is that a case for labeling Mr. Trump a “liar”—some would say “serial liar”—even while abstaining from classifying individual declarations as “lies.”

Not really, at least for the news media. Again reporters should not pretend to have penetrated Mr. Trump’s inner life. They should stick to the surface reality. I would be content if, in every case of questionable assertions, the news media simply followed Mr. Trump’s name with something more modestly descriptive. For example:

“Mr. Trump, whose pattern of making inaccurate statements has been extensively documented.”

Or “Mr. Trump, who regularly makes statements that are demonstrably false.”

Or “Mr. Trump, a political leader well known for denying established facts.” 

That would suffice. I wonder whether Mr. Baker would agree.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Also by this author
Never on Sunday?

Please email comments to [email protected]zine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Collections