Times editors give it a shot: How should Donald J. Trump's claim be described—his recent (unrecorded, reported) claim that 3-5 million illegal votes were cast in November's election?
In this morning's featured editorial, the New York Times gives that question a try. As we'll show you below, the editors start out today referring to Trump's "false claim."
Eventually, in paragraph 6, the editors get a snootful and refer to the claim as a "lie."
We'll review the text of the editorial below. First, let's ponder something in Dan Barry's recent report—his report about the way the paper's "top editors" first decided to call Trump's statement a "lie."
As you may recall, the L-bomb was dropped on the front page of Tuesday morning's Times. Somewhat strangely, Trump's statement was branded as "a lie" in the paper's front-page headline only. The news report beneath that headline didn't say Trump told a "lie."
Whatever! By way of recollection, here's what that headline said:
"Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie"
Please note. That headline doesn't say Trump "lied." It says he repeated a "lie!"
According to Barry, a significant difference lurks there. In this passage, Barry quotes Joshua Benton, flamboyant youngish director of Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab:
BARRY (1/26/17): [New York Times mastermind Dean] 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.Benton applauded its use as a noun! Because the term was used as a noun, “the lie can exist as a reality distinct from the speaker’s intention!"
“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.”
Mr. Baquet said that emails from readers seemed split on the appropriateness of the word’s use. Meanwhile, Mr. Benton, of the Nieman Journalism Lab, applauded its use as a noun in the Times headline (“Trump Repeats an Election Lie”); in this construction, he said, “the lie can exist as a reality distinct from the speaker’s intention.”
Donald J. Trump told a lie without lying! We live in a world where people like Benton says such things, and people like Barry type them on up.
Meanwhile, at the very top of our most famous newspaper, people like Baquet seem to think a claim is a lie if the claim is untrue. This is the shape of our world!
We'd pay good money to watch Benton and Barry attempt to defend Benton's gongy construction. That said, here's the way the editors limned this matter today:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (1/28/17): There are varying degrees of absurdity in the fallacies President Trump peddled during his first week in the Oval Office. Perhaps the most damaging was his insistence that millions of Americans voted illegally in the election he narrowly won.The editorial continues from there. That said, did Donald J. Trump tell a lie? Here's how the editors played it:
Mr. Trump first made that false claim in late November, tweeting that he would have won the popular vote “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” On Wednesday, he announced that he intended to launch a “major investigation” into voting fraud and suggested the outcome may justify tightening voting rules.
What once seemed like another harebrained claim by a president with little regard for the truth must now be recognized as a real threat to American democracy. Mr. Trump is telegraphing his administration’s intent to provide cover for longstanding efforts by Republicans to suppress minority voters by purging voting rolls, imposing onerous identification requirements and curtailing early voting.
“This is another attempt to undermine our democracy,” said Representative Barbara Lee of California, one of the states where Mr. Trump falsely claimed results were tainted by large-scale fraud. “It’s about not honoring and recognizing demographic change.”
The apparent source of Mr. Trump’s original claim of mass voter fraud was Gregg Phillips, a Texas man with a penchant for making wild allegations about voting fraud. Days before Mr. Trump’s tweet, Mr. Phillips claimed on Twitter that he had “verified more than three million votes cast by non-citizens.” State election officials across the political spectrum promptly rejected that assertion, noting that ballot box fraud in the United States is exceedingly rare.
On Friday, Mr. Trump tweeted that he was looking forward to seeing the results of an analysis of illegal votes, as promised by Mr. Phillips. Republican officials know the voter fraud claim is an indefensible lie. But few are challenging Mr. Trump or raising alarms about how severely this hurts our election system.
First, they described Trump's statement about illegal votes as a mere "false claim" (also, as a "fallacy"). Skillfully moving from noun to verb, they soon said that Trump "falsely claimed" that California's results had been tainted.
(For our money, the editors never succeed in showing that Trump's claim is actually "false." That said, let's ignore that point today. Let's return return to the question of "lies.")
We were now four paragraphs in; no L-bombs had dropped from the sky. Frankly, we were starting to wonder if the editors, sixteen strong, were perhaps maybe taking a dive.
In paragraph 6, our faith was restored. Trump's "false claim" was bumped up a level. At last, it was scanned as a "lie."
Readers, can we talk? In the New York Times, Donald J. Trump still hasn't lied. On the other hand, he has told or repeated a lie.
At Harvard, the eggheads dissect these subtle moves. Here on our campus, we say it again:
Sometimes you just have to laugh.
Starting Monday: Learning to use our words. Also, why does this matter?
Gazing into the middle distance: Earlier in his report, Barry had pondered that key noun-verb distinction. We bring his words to you here:
BARRY: To say that someone has “lied,” an active verb, or has told a “lie,” a more passive, distancing noun, is to say that the person intended to deceive.Top editors chose a "distancing noun!" In this key and important sense, were they taking a dive all along?