Part 3—Crazy men tell no lies: On Tuesday morning, the New York Times did something very exciting.
Above the fold, right there on page one, the dull-witted newspaper placed the word "lie" right in a front-page headline!
Above the fold, out on the front page, there the thrilling headline stood. Donald J. Trump had repeated a lie, the large bold word clump said:
Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie
On the hard-copy front page, that's what the headline said!
Today, we learn an astonishing fact. According to the Times' Dan Barry, editors at the Times "consulted dictionaries" as they tried to decide whether to go with the thrilling term "lie."
Good God. Are the editors new to the planet, or just to the language? Tomorrow, we'll examine Barry's remarkable account of the way the editors reached their daring decision.
For today, let's focus on a peculiar point. The news report which carried that headline didn't say that Donald J. Trump had told or repeated a "lie!"
The headline bore a thrilling word. Below, you see the way the news report began.
The news report didn't say that Trump lied! Thrilling headline included:
SHEAR AND HUETTEMAN (1/24/17): Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With LawmakersThe news report said that Trump made a "false claim." It didn't say that Donald J. Trump had told or repeated a "lie."
President Trump used his first official meeting with congressional leaders on Monday to falsely claim that millions of unauthorized immigrants had robbed him of a popular vote majority, a return to his obsession with the election’s results even as he seeks support for his legislative agenda.
The claim, which he has made before on Twitter, has been judged untrue by numerous fact-checkers. The new president’s willingness to bring it up at a White House reception in the State Dining Room is an indication that he continues to dwell on the implications of his popular vote loss even after assuming power.
Mr. Trump appears to remain concerned that the public will view his victory—and his entire presidency—as illegitimate if he does not repeatedly challenge the idea that Americans were deeply divided about sending him to the White House to succeed President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trump received 304 electoral votes to capture the White House, but he fell almost three million votes short of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote. That reality appears to have bothered him since Election Day, prompting him to repeatedly complain that adversaries were trying to undermine him.
Voting officials across the country have said there is virtually no evidence of people voting illegally, and certainly not millions of them. White House officials did not respond to requests for a comment on Mr. Trump’s discussion of the issue.
Alas! So it tends to go at the New York Times, where layers of editors work their will, in layered ways, on the paper's news product. In this case, we were left with a thrilling hybrid:
The headline said that Trump had lied. The report said something different.
For ourselves, we would have tilted toward "unfounded," not "false." But then, we believe that journalists should "use their words" to make accurate statements—accurate statements in which they report the things they actually know.
The New York Times thrilled us rubes with that headline that day. One night before, Lawrence O'Donnell prefigured their boldness with a murky opening segment about the terms "falsehood" and "lie."
For the full transcript, click here.
As he opened his program, O'Donnell explained the basic difference between the two well-known terms. "A lie is the deliberate use of a falsehood with the intention to deceive," the cable star thoughtfully said.
O'Donnell proceeded to offer puzzling assessments about several of Donald J. Trump's alleged lies. He quoted a statement by Trump about the size of his inaugural crowd and, for reasons which didn't seem clear, he said it was merely a falsehood.
Then, he diagnosed a "lie." We're sorry, but this doesn't seem to make sense. To watch the full tape, click this:
O'DONNELL (1/23/17): The same man who told you he saw a million, a million and a half people [at his inaugural], also told you he saw this:Do we know, for an absolute fact, that "that never happened?"
TRUMP (videotape): I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.
O'DONNELL: "I watched thousands and thousands of people." Now, we all know, for an absolute fact, that he did not watch that because that never happened.
Thousands and thousands of people cheering as that building was coming down. So we know that that's a lie. That's what Donald Trump looks like when he's lying.
Not exactly, no. But for argument's sake, let's say we do. Let's assume that we do know, for an absolute fact, that the scene Trump described never happened.
By normal assessment, that wouldn't mean that Donald J. Trump was lying when he made his statement! If he somehow thinks his claim is true, that would mean his claim isn't a lie.
The assessment turns on what the speaker knows and believes, not on what O'Donnell might think or know out there in corporate cable land. Duh. If a speaker somehow believes a false claim, the false claim isn't a lie.
According to O'Donnell, Trump's wild statement about his inaugural crowd was a falsehood, nothing more. But his statement about what he saw on September 11? That was an actual lie!
Truth to tell, O'Donnell's analyses of these claims didn't much seem to make sense. But then, we live in a world where our highest-ranking journalists break out their dictionaries to consider the nuances of the complex term "lie."
As we've noted for the past nineteen years, the analytical skills of our high-ranking scribes are often observed in the absence. That said, O'Donnell encountered intriguing push-back this night when he turned to his pair of guests.
First, he turned to Indira Lakshmanan, a Washington columnist for the Boston Globe. O'Donnell mentioned the statement Trump had made that very night, in which Trump claimed that he lost the popular vote because of 3-5 million illegal votes.
"Is that a falsehood, or is that a lie?" O'Donnell dull-wittedly asked. And uh-oh! After pandering to her host and dodging his question a bit, Lakshmanan finally offered this answer
LAKSHMANAN: He continues to repeatedly repeat this thing, that has absolutely no verification or evidence behind it, of illegal immigrants voting, and continues to say that he won a landslide in the electoral college, when we know it was one of the lowest electoral college victories in history.Truer words were never spoken. "I don't know," Lakshmanan said.
So I don't know. You could say this is a falsehood [and not a lie], in the sense that Donald Trump has probably convinced himself and believes it.
Can he tell the difference between these falsehoods that he continually repeats? Is he intentionally lying, or has he convinced himself of this?
She seemed to suggest the possibility that Trump may really believe his improbable claims. She seemed to say that this would mean that he isn't actually "lying."
Does Trump believe his improbable claims? We have no freaking idea. But when O'Donnell turned to David Corn, he got even stronger push-back.
Has Donald J. Trump been telling "lies," the way that New York Times headline said? Corn suggested a possibility which would likely be even more troubling.
Corn also pandered to his host a bit. After that, he suggested that Donald J. Trump may be some version of crazy:
CORN: In your wonderful opening, you set up sort of a dichotomy between lies and falsehoods. I think, you did, you know, you got it right.Does Trump really believe the crazy-seeming things he keeps asserting? Corn said he actually might!
But there might be a third option, which is delusions. And I'm not being overly glib when I say that.
He may really believe that he saw thousands of people protest, you know, cheering on the 9/11 tragedy in Jersey City. He may really believe that there are 5 million people, because it's convenient to believe this.
He may really believe he wasn't making fun of a reporter.
You know, during one of the debates, Hillary Clinton said, "You called global warming climate change a hoax created by the Chinese." He said, "No, I did not." That was exactly what he had tweeted. She was quoting him accurately. He may have believed he never said it. Maybe he forgot.
So I think there's something about his processing of information, to be maybe charitable about it, that still leaves a lot of mystery. I mean, it's mystifying. And when he goes to the CIA headquarters, as he did on Saturday, and has that bizarre statement and says I've been on Time magazine's cover more than anybody.
Well, he probably believes that, even though it's not true. It's going to be a big problem, I think, for the media to cover this well and fairly.
Taking care "to be maybe charitable about it," Corn didn't specifically say that Donald J. Trump might be some version of crazy. He did introduce the word "delusions" into the discussion this night. And he said Trump "probably believes" his crazy claims, even though his claims aren't true.
Does Trump believe his crazy claims? Like Lakshmanan, we don't know. Given Trump's apparent serial lunacy, we have no way to be sure.
Corn said that Donald J. Trump probably does believe these claims. We don't have the slightest idea how he reached that judgment.
We do know this—it's embarrassing to watch the mainstream press corps fumble along with these concepts. The concept of "lie" is tremendously basic, except at the New York Times or on O'Donnell's program, where one wild statement is a lie and another wild claim is a falsehood.
Dead men tell no tales, it's been said. They also wear no plaid.
It'a also true that crazy people tell no lies. As a general matter, we don't say that a deranged person is telling a "lie" when he says something that's objectively crazily false.
Does Trump believe the things he says? We have no way of knowing. Is it possible that Trump is some version of delusional / crazy / deranged?
We hate to kill all the L-bomb fun, but we'd say it plainly is.
Tuesday night, on Don Lemon's CNN show, Nicholas Kristof raised this very question during a discussion of Trump's possible "lies."
Is it possible that Trump is "a crackpot," Kristof explicitly asked—that he isn't a liar at all?
Kristof was raising a possibility which seems quite obvious to us. After he did so, he turned tail and ran. Our big scribes tend to be like that.
Tomorrow, we'll examine what Kristof said that night. Very briefly, he opens this morning's column with the same rumination.
As we watched Kristof on Lemon's show, it seemed to us that he was unwilling to gaze into the abyss. It's more fun to use a thrilling term, to tell us that King Donald "lied."
The game has been played this childish way for at least the past twenty-five years. Our journalists run and hide from the truth.
They break out their Webster's to parse "cat" and "dog." This childish behavior has gone on forever. It helps explain how we all got here.
Still coming: Why do we have so many words? And why do these questions matter?