Part 5—Major scribes, keeping it simple: In the first few days of our country's new era, should NPR have reported that Donald J. Trump had "lied?"
The question created a firestorm in the first week of Donald Trump's reign. Three months later, Masha Gessen drew applause when she declared that NPR's choice of words concerning Trump had, in itself, been a lie.
Her thunder recalls sacred Thoreau, then barely thirty years of age, denouncing the varied behaviors of his Concord "townsmen."
"I have traveled a good deal in Concord," the young writer said at the start of his famous book, Walden. And everywhere, Thoreau declared, he'd seen "young men, my townsmen," whose way of life was extremely wrong, based on "the scenes which I daily witness."
How vast was the error of those young men? "Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf," Thoreau rather hotly declared.
Years later, Gessen drew applause from the world's brightest crowd as she declared that NPR's conduct was, in itself, a lie.
Is it possible that the youngish Thoreau was "labor[ing] under a mistake" as he denounced his townsmen? Since everybody makes mistakes, is it possible that Gessen was mistaken as she denounced NPR?
For the record, NPR had offered two reasons for the conduct Gessen denounced. On January 25, 2017, those reasons were proffered, not for the first time, during a three-way discussion on Morning Edition.
Senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes agreed with national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly concerning the first of these reasons. Since NPR didn't know the state of Trump's rather disordered mind as he issued his recent misstatements, they couldn't report, as a matter of fact, that the new president had been lying when he made them.
Oreskes then stated a second reason, one he'd stated before. Way back in September 2016, he'd offered this explanation for the network's reluctance to use the fiery terms "liar" and "lie" when reporting the misstatements of then-candidate Trump:
ORESKES (9/15/16) Now a number of people have asked us why we didn't call Trump a liar. A professor named Jay Rosen actually asked why we didn't call Trump a "lying son of a b****." Others, like Amy Bradley-Hole, a fashion editor and blogger, asked the question more calmly.Should NPR have adopted a semi-Thoreauvian tone? Should they have called Candidate Trump a "liar?" Should they have called him "a lying son of a b****?"
It is a fair question. So here is why.
We want everyone to listen to us and read us. We want our reporting to reach as many people as possible. It is a well-established piece of social science research that if you start out with an angry tone and say something a listener disagrees with, they will tune out the facts. But if you present the facts calmly and without a tone of editorializing you substantially increase the chance that people will hear you out and weigh the facts. That is why the tone of journalism matters so much. We need potential listeners and readers to believe we are presenting the facts honestly, and not to confirm our opinions.
Oreskes said that this approach would tend to drive listeners and readers away. In the aggregate, he may or may not have been right.
He also seemed to say that the use of such terms would have produced "a tone of editorializing." On this occasion, he didn't exactly speak to the journalistic accuracy of such a claim.
For what it's worth, we think Oreskes would have been better off, at several points in this discussion, if he'd referred to the known facts concerning Trump's inaccurate claims. It may, indeed, have been an actual fact that Donald J. Trump had been lying on the occasions under review. It's just that NPR wasn't in a position to know or report that as a fact, or so NPR had judged.
We tend to agree, very strongly, with NPR's basic decision. On these occasions, NPR would have been going beyond what it actually knew if it had referred to Trump's misstatements as "lies."
In early May, Gessen's claim to the contrary drew applause from an admittedly brilliant crowd. But alas! We think her claims that day were remarkably simple-minded, perhaps a bit like sacred Thoreau's, or even like Professor Rosen's.
As is true of everyone else, we liberals may tend to overstate when feeling is running high. As we noted yesterday, Gessen's claims about the word "misstatement" were basically silly on their face, though they didn't keep her genius crowed from erupting in applause.
We liberals! We aren't nearly as smart as we think we are, and everybody else knows it. Today, let's consider the way our avatars have been tending to dumb it down—to keep it simple—when discussing the question of Trump's endless peculiar misstatements.
Last Friday, in a new Trumpcast at Slate, Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan discussed Trump's "misleading and unsupported statements" with Slate's Virginia Heffernan.
We regard Nyhan as one of the more constructive participants in our public discourse of the past ten years. We regard Heffernan as routinely puzzling.
That said, the pair joined forced to produce a simplified discussion of the current president's puzzling behavior. In our view, this happened in part because they refused to consider the possibility that Donald J. Trump may be some form of "mentally ill" and/or in the grip of some form of dementia.
It isn't like these possibilities haven't been raised by serious observers. It isn't that these possibilities aren't tragic, and potentially significant.
It's just that our journalists have tended to avoid these possibilities in their public discussions. Here's what happened late last week when the New Yorker's David Remnick attempted to raise these possibilities in an interview with the New York Times' Maggie Haberman:
REMNICK (7/21/17): In my memory, growing up with the New York Times, it was a very rare day—in fact, I don’t know that it existed at all—when the New York Times would say that President Johnson, or Kennedy, or Nixon, whoever—lied. Used the word “lied.” Now we have a situation in which the New York Times will go so far as to have an entire feature listing the collected lies of Donald Trump, and it’ll publish it in the newspaper and online and all the rest.Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is "mentally ill" in some way? Haberman is right to be "circumspect" concerning this difficult medical question. But she basically sidestepped the question here, and Remnick quickly moved on.
We’ve had presidents who’ve lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, and all manner of things, about intelligence regarding Iraq. So what changed?
HABERMAN: This is too frequent and too much a part of the fabric of daily life with Trump. It’s just different.
REMNICK: How do you analyze his mental state? I can’t avoid this question, because it’s more and more a matter of discussion in print, on television. If you turn on “Morning Joe”—a program that you could easily have interpreted some time ago as being quite pro-Trump, enthusiastic about him, in certain ways—now is discussing whether he has dementia. Their words, not mine. Let’s put a reality check on this. How do you analyze his grasp of life, of fact? What is his mental state?
HABERMAN: I think my psychiatry degree never came through, so I’m gonna be a bit circumspect here, or a bit circumscribed here. Look, I think that he has an amazing belief in his own ability to will what he thinks into reality. And I think that he thinks of reality as something that is subjective. So I think that what people characterize as “he’s out of touch” or “he’s not understating this” or “he seems off,” or whatever—I think he has an amazing capacity to try to draw the world as he wants it. And I think that’s a lot of it.
If Donald J. Trump is "mentally ill" in some way, would that mean that he isn't a "liar?" Well actually yes, it might.
When you see a person in the street declaring himself to be Jesus Christ, do you normally walk away declaring that this person's a liar? Or might you think that he's "off his meds"—as he very well may be—and lacks the agency normally required for the act of telling a lie?
For ourselves, we're slow to characterize Trump's repeated ludicrous claims because it seems to us that he many be ill in some way. His possible illness changes the way we would assess his ludicrous claims. It makes us slower to claim that we know how to characterize his relentless, peculiar behavior and his endless inaccurate claims.
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is "mentally ill" in some way? When Remnick raised the possibility, Haberman essentially avoided the discussion.
But as she did, she described Trump is a way which might suggest some form of "mental illness." What might you call it if a person "thinks of reality as something that is subjective" and "has an amazing capacity to try to draw the world as he wants it," whatever that word salad actually means?
Granted, that's largely gobbledegook. But it also starts to sound like some possible form of "mental illness."
We'll guess that Haberman may work for a paper which has decided, as editorial policy, that it doesn't want this topic discussed. The same rules seemed to be in effect when Heffernan and Nyhan discussed Trump's endless misstatements in that recent Slate Trumpcast.
Nyhan, the Dartmouth professor, is also a Times contributor. Their discussion starts around minute 9 on this tape, where Heffernan prompts Nyhan thusly:
"So tell us a little bit about the liar Donald Trump."
Instantly, Nyhan explains that a problem exists with the term "liar" because it involves the matter of intent. That said, "the pattern of misleading and unsupported statements is obviously undeniable at this point," Nyhan correctly says.
"It's almost impossible to keep track of," Nyhan says. "The severity of these falsehoods, and the frequency with which they're being promoted by the president himself and his aides and officials, really is without precedent in my lifetime...The absolute onslaught of these things is really incredible."
Those statements are all correct.
Over the next ten minutes or so, Nyhan and Heffernan discuss Donald J. Trump's "pattern of misleading and unsupported statements." Again and again, it sounds to us like Nyhan may be describing someone who may be mentally ill in some way.
Nyhan notes the fact that Donald J. Trump repeatedly "make[s] statements that are immediately and obviously false with public information, right? It takes ten seconds of Googling to show that whatever he just said is false."
He notes the fact that Donald J. Trump "won't back down on anything," even when it has been plainly shown that the statement in question is false. Before long, he seems to be channeling Haberman as he describes Trump's overall state of mind:
NYHAN (7/21/17): There's often this dream that, through words alone, we can kind of make a world the way we want it to be. And within a kind of epistemic bubble of the sort that Trump often seems to be in, and many of his most intense and hard-core supporters seem to be in, that may seem to be true, right? I mean, there's this question of to what extent reality intrudes and contradicts his sorts of claims, and how aware people within that bubble are of their actual falsehood.Say what? "There's this question of to what extent reality intrudes" inside Trump's epistemic bubble? There's this question of how aware he is of the falsehood of his ridiculous claims?
Does it sound to you like Nyhan is describing someone who may be mentally ill in some way? Is it possible that Donald J. Trump thinks he's Jesus Christ?
Again and again, Heffernan and Nyhan seem to be describing a person who may not be well. But alas! Heffernan can't stop reverting to the simple-minded framework of "liar" and "lies," even when discussing Trump's tendency to blurt out the truth, even in ways which may send him to prison:
HEFFERNAN: Since we are in the habit of clocking Trump's lies, and it's an assumption I think in the majority of people polled that, you know, he does frequently lie, it's hard to also notice that sometimes he keeps us off guard by telling the truth, and especially about his motivations, in this florid way.Donald J. Trump has this tendency of blurting out the truth, even when it might send him to prison! Because Heffernan is deeply simple-minded in her thinking, she interprets this tendency in this way:
NYHAN: He has a tendency of blurting out what seem to be his real motivations that other politicians might withhold, right? The most famous example is the initial spin on Comey's removal being about how he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation, which everyone found preposterous.
But then he had the interview with NBC and he basically blurted out that the Russia investigation was uncomfortable or awkward for him and this took the pressure off, right, or whatever the wording was. So he basically conceded that the Russia investigation was the primary motivation for Comey's removal, which is a remarkable statement. I mean, it might be part of a potential obstruction of justice charge at some point, right? To put that on the record voluntarily is quite remarkable. So he does have this tendency sometimes of actually telling us what he's doing.
It can't be that Trump is somehow unwell. Instead, the liar Trump "keeps us off guard" by telling us the truths!
Liberals, can we talk? Masha Gessen is an admirable figure. It's also true that her comments about NPR at her May 7 lecture were remarkably simple-minded.
Does the word "misstatement" suggest a singular occurrence? Not if you put an "s" on the end of the word, thereby making it plural!
Does the word "misstatement" suggest that Trump was well-intentioned? That he simply made an innocent mistake?
Not necessarily! Not if you say that his most recent misstatement, like many others before it, flew in the face of obvious evidence which has been widely discussed.
Our language gives us many words with which we can describe and discuss misstatements. Tomorrow, we'll wonder why we seem to love that one L-word so much.
Tomorrow: Sacred Austin's remarkable work; also, Brabender "starts to hit"