Inquiring minds have asked: Margaret Sullivan made a "modest proposal" in today's Washington Post. For reasons you can check for yourself, she suggested that journalists should stop using the term "fake news."
Sullivan also made a suggestion. On its face, her suggestion seems to make obvious sense.
In our view, though, her suggestion isn't especially smart:
SULLIVAN (1/9/17): So, here’s a modest proposal for the truth-based community.Should journalists "call a lie a lie?" In most cases, they probably shouldn't!
Let’s get out the hook and pull [the term "fake news"] off stage. Yes: Simply stop using it.
Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, “fake news” is an imprecise expression to begin with.
We'll offer an explanation below. First, a bit of background:
Should journalists call a lie a lie? Eight days ago, the question went viral in the wake of an exchange on Meet the Press.
On the venerable Sunday show, Chuck Todd posed a question to Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal. This is what Todd said:
TODD (1/1/17): The issue of facts. We don't—If somebody "says an outright falsehood," should journalists say that he or she "lied?" That's the way Todd framed the question for Baker. In the eight days since the Todd-Baker exchange, an array of journalists have offered their thoughts on this matter.
People always say, "You've got to fact-check, you've got to fact-check." But we sometimes—there isn't an agreement on what the facts are. And this is yet another challenge for you and everybody here, which—
Do you feel comfortable saying, "So-and-so lied?" To be that—
You know, if somebody says just an outright falsehood, do you say the word "lie?" Is that important to start putting in reporting or not?
Yesterday, Sullivan said that journalists should just "call a lie a lie." On its face, that seems to make perfect sense—but in most cases, that advice is almost certainly wrong. This is why we say that:
Duh. In most cases, journalists won't be in a position to know that the lie is a lie.
That may know that Person X made a fairly obvious misstatement. But was Person X telling a lie?
In most cases, Journalist Y won't be in a position to know. If we expect journalists to report what they know, that should, in most cases, settle the question right there.
Having said that, let us add this further point. All too often, pundits or journalists generate a bad result when they call a misstatement a lie.
Maybe we're the only ones who have ever watched a cable news pundit discussion. But when pundits refer to misstatements as lies, they frequently generate a type of second-order discussion, in which defenders of Person X note the fact that the journalist can't possibly know that Person X is lying.
On cable channels like CNN, skillful defenders of Person X will instantly change the subject in the manner described. Just like that, the onus gets shifted from a groaning misstatement by Person X to an unsupported claim made by Journalist Y.
This switch in focus is quite common on CNN's gong-show panels.
Should journalists use the term "lie?" In our current downward spiral, this question has been gaining currency since 1994 or 1995.
Howls were heard when Newt Gingrich, breaking with long-standing tradition, began using the L-bomb to describe certain (perfectly accurate) statements by President Clinton. Ten years later, our own David Corn explicitly changed the traditional definition of the term "lie" in order to fuel his tribally pleasing book, The Lies of George W. Bush.
In the liberal and mainstream worlds, Donald J. Trump's endless array of bogus statements have fueled a desire to add the L-word to our array of bombs. Todd's recent question on Meet the Press has fueled a renewed discussion.
For ourselves, we've been struck by the primitive set of skills our journalists bring to this discussion. Our lazy, C-minus array of skills have helped create the cultural mess we're all in.
We'll look at some of the post-Todd chatter in the next few days. Tomorrow, we'll start with Todd's question itself. We'll even look at Baker's reply.
Should journalists call a lie a lie? Working from the transcript above, we're going to ask why Chuck asked!