FALSEHOODS, MISSTATEMENTS AND LIES: Why did the New York Times call it a lie?


Part 4—Sometimes you just have to laugh:
Should the New York Times have reported that Donald J. Trump told a lie?

The Times didn't just make that exciting report. On Tuesday, the paper made that exciting report in a hard-copy, front-page headline.

The headline appeared above the fold on the front page of Tuesday's Times. Excitement spread throughout the land. Here's what the headline said:

"Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie"

That sat atop a news report which didn't say that Trump had lied. For some reason which went unexplained, the exciting headline did!

Should the Times have used that word? And at a street-fighting time like this, do such niceties matter?

Eventually, we'll answer that second question. Our answer will be yes.

For today, let's examine the way the New York Times reached its thrilling decision. How did the Times decide to say that Donald J. Trump told a "lie?"

Before we explore the New York Times' thinking, let's establish a norm. Confronted by our upper-end press corps, sometimes you just have to laugh!

In what way did the New York Times reach its high-profile decision? What made the Times decide to say that Trump had repeated a "lie?"

Yesterday morning, the Times' Dan Barry explained the thinking behind that decision. In a 1249-word News Analysis piece, Barry described the way the thrilling decision was reached.

Below, we'll show you what Barry said. Again, though, we offer our sanity warning: Sometimes, you just have to laugh!

Barry's report started well enough. "Words matter," he instantly said.

He soon was making another sane statement. He said that Donald J. Trump's recent (reported) statement, alleging millions of illegal votes, had "challenged the news media to find the precise words to describe it."

Barry never quoted Trump's statement, of course. That's because there is no transcript or tape of what Trump actually said.

Soon, though, Barry was describing the way the Times decided to call the (reported) statement a lie. He started by describing a scene at NPR. Sometimes you just have to laugh:
BARRY (1/26/17): On NPR's ''Morning Edition'' on Wednesday, Mary Louise Kelly explained that she had looked up the definition of ''lie'' in the Oxford English Dictionary. ''A false statement made with intent to deceive,'' Ms. Kelly said. ''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 facts.''

Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior president for news, supported the decision. In an article on the NPR website, Mr. Oreskes said that ''the minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you.'' The inherent risk, he suggested, was that news organizations would be seen as taking sides.
For the record, we agree with NPR's decision. On the other hand, good God!

Mary Louise Kelly is a 45-year-old, magna cum laude Harvard grad. Did she really have to "look up the definition of lie" to learn that a lie is a false statement made with the intent to deceive?

Did Kelly need Webster's to help her see that many false statements aren't "lies?" How could a person get hired at NPR if she wasn't already aware of a broad range of such obvious facts?

Do NPR hosts look up "cat" and "dog" to learn that such creatures aren't house plants? Do they study the entry for "up" to learn that it differs from "down?"

In our view, Barry has already described a deeply ridiculous piece of behavior. But as he continued, he said "top editors" at the Times had perhaps done the same darn thing:
BARRY (continuing directly): Editors at The Times also consulted dictionaries. And they had some prior experience with the matter, having approved the use of the L word once before in reference to Mr. Trump.

In September, when he grandly announced the findings of a yearslong so-called investigation into what nearly everyone else never doubted—''President Obama was born in the United States, period''—the Times published a Page 1 article with the headline ''Trump Gives Up a Lie but Refuses to Repent.''

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said that he learned of Mr. Trump's latest comments in a text message from an editor on Monday night. After consulting with other top editors, he decided that the use of ''lie'' was warranted.
At the Times, editors consulted their Webster's too! As we thoughtfully asked yesterday, are these editors new to the language? Or are they just new to the world?

Truth to tell, that passage by Barry left us with several questions. Among our top questions were these:
A few of our top questions:
1) How many editors does the Times employ? How many are top editors?

2) Did top editors consult dictionaries too? Or was that just lesser editors?

3) If editors approved the use of the L-word back in September, what the F-word made them decide to look up the L-word now?

4) How much less would the Sunday Times cost if half these people resigned?
Whatever! Plainly, one major question emerges from the passage we've posted. On what basis did Baquet "decide that the use of 'lie' was warranted?"

It sat in a headline atop a report which didn't say that Trump had lied! On what basis did Baquet decide this made good sense?

Let's be frank. As he proceeds to answer that question, Barry doesn't mention the flight of birds or the use of ouija boards.

Instead, he offers this. In standard fashion, this puzzling passage strikes us as incoherent:
BAQUET (continuing directly): For Mr. Baquet, the question of intent was resolved, given that Mr. Trump had made the same assertion two months earlier through his preferred mode of communication, the tweet: ''In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.''


Mr. Baquet said he fully understood the gravity of using the word ''lie,'' whether in reference to an average citizen or to the president of the United States. He emphasized that it should be used sparingly, partly because the term carries such negative connotations, and partly so that it does not lose potency.

''On the other hand, we should be letting people know in no uncertain terms that it's untrue,'' Mr. Baquet said, referring to the president's assertion of a voter-fraud epidemic. ''He repeated it without a single grain of evidence, and it's a very powerful statement about the electoral system.''
Do you understand the reasoning there? We'll be honest—we don't.

We don't understand the relevance of the fact that Trump "had made the same assertion two months earlier." In truth, you can make a false statement as many times as you like! Unless you knew the false statement was false, it wouldn't normally be considered a lie.

We also don't get this: Baquet wanted readers to be told, "in no uncertain terms," that Trump's (unrecorded, reported) statement was untrue.

In our view, Baquet is overstating the certainty of his own knowledge, in a way which isn't helpful or journalistically sound. But as everyone knows, the fact that a statement is untrue doesn't mean it's a lie!

People constantly make false statements which are in no way lies. Surely, Baquet's top editors could have derived such knowledge from their visits with Webster.

''[Trump] repeated it without a single grain of evidence," Baquet is quoted saying. We don't get that either.

Because Trump's statement was unrecorded, it's hard to see how Baquet could know that this is the case. Meanwhile, Trump, in his murky/ridiculous way, does claim that he's seen some sort of evidence which supports his (shifting) claim.

At any rate, a statement made without any offer of evidence may be "unfounded" or "unsupported." But it isn't necessarily a lie, even if it turns out to be false.

As a general matter, the statement can only be judged a lie if we learn that the speaker knew it was false. Given the apparent madness of King Donald, does Donald Trump know such things?

Our view? Because Trump seems delusional or perhaps flat-out crazy, it's hard to say whether he can discern that any claim is untrue. In our view, we're going easy on Trump when we get into unwise fights concerning whether or not he has lied.

That's especially true when we say he lied without being able to prove it (except, of course, to ourselves).

Our view? The relevant question about Donald J. Trump concerns his mental health. The last two nights, on CNN, Carl Bernstein has suggested that this question is being discussed within the press corps and within the Republican Party itself. As we noted yesterday, we'd already received that impression from Nicholas Kristof's recent work.

What's the state of Trump's mental health? For example, is it possible that he's some version of "delusional?" (The word has been going around.)

We'll discuss that topic this afternoon. For now, we'll finish with this:

Sometimes you just have to laugh! In our view, that's the approach you have to take to the New York Times' latest attempt to provide good hard-nosed journalism.

On Tuesday morning, the Times did something slightly odd. In a front-page headline, above the fold, they said that Trump had repeated a lie. The headline topped a news report which didn't say Trump had lied.

"Top editors" chose to run with that term after looking up "lie" in their dictionaries! Sometimes you just have to laugh!

Down through the years, the liberal world has had a very hard time grasping the truth about the Times. Here it is:

The Times is a very powerful brand. But beyond that, it's largely an upper-class social club—a strange collection of relative flyweights with few analytical skills.

Baquet is best known for his mumble-mouthed, evasive replies to complaints from the paper's last two public editors. This week, when he faced a tough call, he consulted with legions of top editors—with people who looked up "lie."

For today, we'll leave it here, with the laughter of the gods in our ears. Tomorrow or Monday, we'll answer these lingering questions:

Why do we have so many words which can be used to describe misstatements? And also: At a time like this, why does it matter which of these words we use?

When we give you our answer, we'll introduce two new words: "Kayleigh" and "McEnany." Those words will come with a warning.

McEnany is brighter than most of our stars. We'll admit that we've come to like her, due to the fact hat she never gets unpleasant, abrasive or mad.

McEnany is sharper than Us! That is a very important fact. It will be a key part of our answer.

Still coming: Falsehood, misstatement, embellishment, lie? Untrue, unfounded, misleading?

Why do we have so many words? And why does our choice of words matter?


  1. Bob is laying the groundwork for impeachment or other such action:


    at the expense of being reasonable. I do not doubt that Trump is aware his claims are false. Trump is no hero, he is a long time con man, and he has already observed how Republicans are quite wiling to put aside any integrity they may have to use him to fulfill their empty goals.

  2. Trump looked absolutely unhinged in his press conference with Theresa May. His style was erratic and manic and the substance of what he said was detached from reality. Putting Americans first? What kind of politician says that?

    Agree it's time to start asking questions about the possibility of a form of mental illness. Dangerous man.

  3. Mr. Somerby,
    There is no need to be snippy about the Ms. Kelly's or the Times editors' use of a dictionary. Words can have multiple meanings, even common ones, and with a word as potent, and damning as 'lie', I think it shows due diligence that they did some research before using it.

    1. OH! It hurts! But really, enough with the side-splittingly funny comments.

      Truth: Whoever you are, Anonymous, your complete-idiot deadpan is letter prefect.

      "due diligence" YOU ARE KILLING!!

    2. You sound unhinged yourself Nona. Perhaps your sense of reality is slipping away just like Trump's rating.

  4. There is a school of thought that says we should reserve words like "lie" and "racist" and "rape" for the most clear examples or the power of the words are diluted and they are rendered meaningless. As a progressive, I favor using them liberally against our enemies in every case no matter how disputed the facts or conclusions.

  5. Bob makes good points here. Dean Baker makes a good additional point--that NPR and other news organizations are always making similar pretensions of being mind-readers when they say, for example, that "Republican leaders believe that balancing the budget is the most urgent task facing our country." In a passage like that, they're assuming sincerity on the part of politicians, despite considerable evidence that they are not in fact being sincere. A better word than "believe," in a context like that, would be "claim."

    1. As a lawyer, I have some other words in lieu of "believe" - "allege" "contend" and "purport"

    2. Couldn't they just "say" it's the most urgent? Why spend a $5 word when a dime's worth will carry the freight?

  6. Perhaps I am being a bit pig-headed here, however, I believe if one considers semantically the Times headline "Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie," , Trump made a statement. The statement that Trump made regarding voter fraud is something that has been stated and repeated since election day (actually, of course, earlier than that) by many people and news orgs. That "fact" /"statement" has been determined to be a lie. Therefore, when Trump "Repeat[ed]" the "fact" he repeated a "Lie."

    1. No, you got it on the nose.

      Yes, the editors (analytically-challenged though they may be) are past masters of the clever out.

      Essentially, "We said the supposed fact itself was a lie. We weren't being specific about a particular statement of that supposed fact."

      They are fucking weasels.

    2. Trump lies constantly, if anything they are being less of a weasel by finally reporting on it. Would have been nice if during the campaign they covered Trump's actual lying problem in the same way they covered Al Gore while pretending that he had a lying problem.

  7. "We don't understand the relevance of the fact that Trump 'had made the same assertion two months earlier.' In truth, you can make a false statement as many times as you like! Unless you knew the false statement was false, it wouldn't normally be considered a lie."

    Bob seems to have gone off the rails with this topic. This statement above is completely wrong as it applies to Trump. It is true that a person can make a false statement over and over without knowing it's a lie but it's extremely difficult to do so if that person is a public figure. In Trump's case his statements have very publicly been fact-checked. His surrogates have been told the facts that show Trump is wrong. Trump himself has been told he's wrong ("I was against the Iraq war from the beginning"... queue the Howard Stern tape) but he keeps repeating his lies without providing evidence to support his claims. When a person is told he is wrong and is provided the evidence, that person can no longer claim "I didn't know." If that person continues to make the same false statements he is meeting the dictionary definition of lying.

    All this should be obvious but there's even more to it than this. Trump has a well-documented history of frequently telling falsehoods. It isn't just that he makes a lot of false statements on a continuous basis. That alone should be enough to label him a liar. It's also the way he tells them. "I have sent investigators to Hawaii... they can't believe what they are finding." Is there really any doubt investigators were NOT sent and that NOTHING was found? Is there any doubt Trump knew his statements were false at the time he made them? There are countless examples of Trump saying "I know things you don't know and someday I will show you the evidence." A crackpot might hold his breath waiting on that evidence but rational people wouldn't. Why? Because only a liar claims to know something you don't know today but only promises to back up his claim some other day - believe me.

    Trump's statements aren't one-off statements. He has a whole body of work to judge not only the frequency of making false statements but also how he tells them and how he sticks to them even when proven wrong. The burden of "knowing" or "intention to deceive" has clearly been met over and over. For some reason Bob disagrees, and what's very odd about Bob's position is he appears to think it's easier to prove Trump has a mental illness than it is to prove Trump is lying. I can't imagine the burden for declaring someone mentally ill is easier than judging whether or not someone lied but Bob seems to think so and seems to think that's a more productive rhetorical route to pursue. Even if that's true, it's possible a person can be both a liar and mentally ill. I believe Trump is both but I also think it's much easier to prove that he is a liar than prove he is mentally ill. If Bob wants to pursue that angle, great, but why does he feel he needs to shoot down the "lie" rhetoric? Bob should pursue the mental illness angle as if it's not connected to whether or not Trump knows he's lying because I believe the jury is most definitely in on that subject. The overwhelming evidence is that Trump knows his statements are false as he makes them.

    1. We could look at this in terms of memetics. As Bob notes, “People constantly make false statements which are in no way lies.” Our culture is swimming in falsities, as Bob himself points out all the time.

      If people make false statements, it might be important to know the origin of the false statements. If there were a “memeology” done to trace the source of the lie and it were found to have one progenitor (an immaculate conception, as it were), then we could feasibly call the person who carried the false meme a liar. Queue Trump, who seems to be quite a progenitor.

      But to go on, the original lie, if it was intentional, is simply carried by the new host. Intention stops to matter from this angle. But I suppose the real world really is quite a bit different. I would find it hard to call a flat-earther a liar. Delusional or ill-informed fit better. Perhaps I would try to dissuade them of their view, but that’s a difficult thing to do in almost any context, not to mention political ones.

      Anyway, the whole argument is academic. The slow and successful infusion of the business class and Christianity back into our civil institutions is nearing completion, and it’s pretty much clear that lies, no matter the intentions of the host, have won the day.

  8. Did Kelly need Webster's to help her see that many false statements aren't "lies?"

    No, she used the OED. You can be rather careless with details for someone who expects so much precision from others.

  9. Once again you perpetuate the absurd claim that Kayleigh McEnany is somehow "sharp". She is absolutely clueless on almost every issue she talks about other than legal talk. The only thing she proves is that going to Harvard Law doesn't make you an expert on anything other than law (and even on that front she seems to have some huge lapses in her knowledge). The fact that you respect this woman is quite revealing. Her horrible defense of anything Trump does lowers the level of discourse in America and you should be ashamed.

  10. You do realize that the "bright" McEnany claimed that Ben Carson is "extremely qualified" to be the HUD secretary because "he has a passion for this" and "grew up in poverty" and he's a world class neurosurgeon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3C6bTiN4lFE

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