Part 3—Sometimes a less-than-great notion: On January 21, 2017, the newly-inaugurated president, Donald J. Trump, journeyed south to CIA headquarters, where he made deathless remarks.
As sometimes happens, Trump seems to have made some inaccurate statements. In this part of a broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition program, national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly cited two such remarks:
KELLY (1/23/17): In that same speech out of the CIA this weekend, Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration.Kelly offered no direct quotes from Trump concerning these peculiar topics. That said, his comments about the size of the crowd and the heaven-sent weather still rank among the strangest and most obvious misstatements he has uttered to date.
In talking about the weather, he described that when he began to speak at his inauguration, the rain stopped immediately. And in fact, you could see water beating on the lapel of his coat.
One might even say that they rank among his craziest statements to date, correspondence to reality-wise.
At this point, a problem arose. In her report, Kelly described an array of statements by Trump as "false," as "provably not true," and as "untrue claims." She compared what Trump had said to what you could see "in fact."
That said, Kelly didn't say that Donald J. Trump had "lied" in maiing these deathless remarks. Within days, NPR was under attack from portions of the liberal world, which had just started its noble resistance, twenty-five years too late.
On January 26, NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen posted a column concerning the controversy. Jensen described the waves of complaints and summarized NPR policy:
JENSEN (1/26/17): This column will attempt to address the several hundred emails (and an untold number of social media posts) to my office and NPR's Audience Services department that were harshly critical of NPR's policy. I've included a representative sampling of listener letters below. They and others used words like "shocked," "appalled," "horrified," "cowardice," "sanctimonious," "timid" and "complicit." ...Should Kelly have referred to Trump's statements as "lies?" For unknown reasons, she had looked up the word in a dictionary after the complaints rolled in.
The policy, in brief, is to largely avoid using the word "lie." As NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly said Wednesday, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a "lie" as "'a false statement made with intent to deceive.' Intent being the key word there—without the ability to peer into Donald Trump's head, I can't tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares—or doesn't—with fact..."
Michael Oreskes, NPR's head of news, added this: "Our job as journalists is to report—to find facts, establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. And I think that when you use words like lie, it gets in the way of that."
On the basis of what Kelly found, she stood behind her original choice of words. She said she didn't feel she could say, as a matter of fact, that the groaners in question were lies.
In several venues, Oreskes had offered a second reason for "largely avoiding" the use of that word. In response, the emails poured in, using other evocative words like "appalled," "horrified" and "complicit."
Our language gives us many ways to express our horror and shock. It also gives us many ways to describe inaccurate statements.
We'll discuss the development of our English language before the week is through. For today, let's consider what happened last May, when Masha Gessen, a highly respected journalist who has actually walked the walk, weighed in on this perhaps underwhelming subject.
In our view, Gessen has earned the respect she's afforded. On May 7, she delivered the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN World Voice Festival.
(To watch the lecture, just click here. For a lightly edited version of Gessen's remarks, you can just click this.)
Gessen spoke to a liberalish audience known, at least among itself, for its obvious maximal brilliance. As she started, she discussed the ways the public discourse in her native Russia had been compromised, undermined, damaged, undone by the end of the Soviet era.
It's a very important topic. She then began suggesting that a similar process is underway here, driven, in large part, by the weird and constant groaning misstatements of ruler-for-life Donald Trump.
Gessen is a serious, admirable journalist. She was discussing a very serious topic. That doesn't mean that her judgments were sound, or even that she was fully prepared to discuss the materials at hand, especially perhaps at a time like this, when tribal feeling is high.
Doggone it! Gessen introduced the transcript of an interview Donald J. Trump had recently conducted with Julie Pace of the Associated Pace. As she did, it seemed fairly clear that she hadn't fully familiarized herself with the transcript in question.
(For background information, see last Thursday's report.)
Anyone can make a mistake! In this case, the big, admittedly brilliant crowd laughed and applauded as Gessen was making hers.
Gessen was perhaps a bit unfair in her remarks about the Associated Press. From there, she quoted something Hannah Arendt once said about the way the world reveals itself to us limited individuals.
"Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides," Arendt apparently said, part of a longer statement quoted by Gessen.
At this point, Gessen repeated one phrase from Arendt's remark. She then entered the fray concerning NPR:
GESSEN (5/7/17): “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another.”Four months after Kelly's report, Gessen still felt that NPR was wrong, in a significant way. In the passage presented above, she made several claims about the way we need to protect our language, and through it our pubic discourse.
And to preserve that freedom, we have to become guardians of our language. We have to keep it alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words.
That means, for example, calling lies "lies."
I am actually—
I am addressing specifically National Public Radio, home to the word "misstatement," among others.
The NPR argument is that the definition of "lie," their argument for not using the word "lie" when describing what Donald Trump does, is that the definition of "lie" involves intent. A lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. And NPR does not have conclusive information on Trump's intent.
The problem is that the euphemism "misstatement" clearly connotes a lack of intent, as though Trump simply took an accidental wrong step.
And the thing is that words exist in time, right? The word "misstatement" suggests a singular occurrence, thereby eliding Trump's history of lying. The word "misstatement" as applied to Trump is actually a lie.
It is actually a lie to think, or to claim, that there are neutral words. Words exist in time, words reflect a history, words reflect an understanding. And using words to lie destroys language.
Gessen made these claims:
She said that, to keep our language alive, we need to call lies "lies."
She said that the term "misstatement" clearly implies that the person who made the misstatement did so in good faith.
She said the term "misstatement" suggests that only one misstatement has been made. She said the term "misstatement," applied to Trump, is itself a lie!
The audience applauded that statement. She then said there are no "neutral words," though we don't really know what she meant.
Gessen is an admirable figure. We won't vouch for her audience, limited individuals all.
That said, her statements that day made little real sense. Tomorrow, we'll issue a heartfelt plea to Gessen and others:
Gessen and others, please! Let's start using our words!
Tomorrow: "That means, for example, calling lies 'lies?' "
Who the Sam, Joe or Lauren Hill could disagree with that?