Should journalists call a lie a lie?


Inquiring minds have asked:
Margaret Sullivan made a "modest proposal" in today's Washington Post. For reasons you can check for yourself, she suggested that journalists should stop using the term "fake news."

Sullivan also made a suggestion. On its face, her suggestion seems to make obvious sense.

In our view, though, her suggestion isn't especially smart:
SULLIVAN (1/9/17): So, here’s a modest proposal for the truth-based community.

Let’s get out the hook and pull [the term "fake news"] off stage. Yes: Simply stop using it.

Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, “fake news” is an imprecise expression to begin with.
Should journalists "call a lie a lie?" In most cases, they probably shouldn't!

We'll offer an explanation below. First, a bit of background:

Should journalists call a lie a lie? Eight days ago, the question went viral in the wake of an exchange on Meet the Press.

On the venerable Sunday show, Chuck Todd posed a question to Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal. This is what Todd said:
TODD (1/1/17): The issue of facts. We don't—

People always say, "You've got to fact-check, you've got to fact-check." But we sometimes—there isn't an agreement on what the facts are. And this is yet another challenge for you and everybody here, which—

Do you feel comfortable saying, "So-and-so lied?" To be that—

You know, if somebody says just an outright falsehood, do you say the word "lie?" Is that important to start putting in reporting or not?
If somebody "says an outright falsehood," should journalists say that he or she "lied?" That's the way Todd framed the question for Baker. In the eight days since the Todd-Baker exchange, an array of journalists have offered their thoughts on this matter.

Yesterday, Sullivan said that journalists should just "call a lie a lie." On its face, that seems to make perfect sense—but in most cases, that advice is almost certainly wrong. This is why we say that:

Duh. In most cases, journalists won't be in a position to know that the lie is a lie.

That may know that Person X made a fairly obvious misstatement. But was Person X telling a lie?

In most cases, Journalist Y won't be in a position to know. If we expect journalists to report what they know, that should, in most cases, settle the question right there.

Having said that, let us add this further point. All too often, pundits or journalists generate a bad result when they call a misstatement a lie.

Maybe we're the only ones who have ever watched a cable news pundit discussion. But when pundits refer to misstatements as lies, they frequently generate a type of second-order discussion, in which defenders of Person X note the fact that the journalist can't possibly know that Person X is lying.

On cable channels like CNN, skillful defenders of Person X will instantly change the subject in the manner described. Just like that, the onus gets shifted from a groaning misstatement by Person X to an unsupported claim made by Journalist Y.

This switch in focus is quite common on CNN's gong-show panels.

Should journalists use the term "lie?" In our current downward spiral, this question has been gaining currency since 1994 or 1995.

Howls were heard when Newt Gingrich, breaking with long-standing tradition, began using the L-bomb to describe certain (perfectly accurate) statements by President Clinton. Ten years later, our own David Corn explicitly changed the traditional definition of the term "lie" in order to fuel his tribally pleasing book, The Lies of George W. Bush.

In the liberal and mainstream worlds, Donald J. Trump's endless array of bogus statements have fueled a desire to add the L-word to our array of bombs. Todd's recent question on Meet the Press has fueled a renewed discussion.

For ourselves, we've been struck by the primitive set of skills our journalists bring to this discussion. Our lazy, C-minus array of skills have helped create the cultural mess we're all in.

We'll look at some of the post-Todd chatter in the next few days. Tomorrow, we'll start with Todd's question itself. We'll even look at Baker's reply.

Should journalists call a lie a lie? Working from the transcript above, we're going to ask why Chuck asked!


  1. The term "fake news" should be reserved for the made up and invented pseudo news reports intended to attack a particular candidate or cause. These are not lies because they are not statements of individuals. They are simulated news stories appearing on websites along with other news, mimicking the appearance of legitimate news but containing made up information. The pizza restaurant story about Clinton is an example.

    Trump's claim that Obama was born in Kenya is not an example of fake news. If that story were reported by Breitbart or the National Enquirer, it would be fake news.

    As funny as they are, stories in The Onion are fake news. Applying Somerby's distinction, incorrect stories about the number of deaths after a shooting are not an example of fake news because they were not created to deceive others.

    1. No, the stories in The Onion are NOT fake news. They are satire, and clearly labeled as such,

      And yes, it is very much "fake news" when a guy like Trump who knows how to command media attention falsely spreads disinformation of any kind, especially the racist-based fable that the nation's first African-American president isn't American at all.

    2. Sorry, but Trump is not a journalist. He is a liar not a news reporter.

      It is part of the ethics and practice of journalism to strive for truth in all reporting. Lying is journalistic malpractice. Being mistaken is not; it is an unavoidable part of the job. When someone deliberately lies in the context of journalism, they are committing fraud. That is why Stephen Glass was fired by The New Republic, for example. He made up fake news stories.

    3. Oh, I see the "logic" here.

      When Trump lies, a journalist can't say it's a lie because Trump is not a journalist.

      That how it works for Somerby and his sycophants in BobWorld?

  2. I'd say it is pretty clear that Trump is lying wen he tries to claim he did not mock the disabled reporter. What a low life scum Trump is, he says "you got to see this guy" as he proceeds to flail his arms with mock disability.

    1. A Hollywood lefty's concern about the disabled shouldn't be taken seriously. They have no ethical qualms about parents having their sons and daughters tested for disabilities with the intent to kill them if certain disabilities are discovered. Ironically they view themselves as more ethical than Sarah Palin.

    2. What is your evidence that Meryl Streep ever aborted a Down's Syndrome fetus or advocated that someone do that?

      Most "lefties" advocate choice, which means the decision is made by the mother together with her family and doctor. Not by you or any "lefty" either.

    3. You would think someone preaching about the disabled would say something about parents who kill the disabled because they're disabled. The fact that the decision lies with the mother doesn't have anything to do with an advocate for the disabled speaking out against it. If she thinks it's important to talk about mimicking the disabled but thinks mentioning killing them is too impolite, you just can't take her seriously.

    4. Meryl Streep, at that same event, cheered for director Roman Polanski. Polanski fled the US to avoid a long prison sentence after it was determined that he had drugged a 13-year old girl and anally raped her.

      Steep's conduct shows tribalism. If you're in Streep's tribe, you can do no wrong. If you're in the other tribe, you're always wrong.

    5. You cannot rehabilitate Donald Trump by tarnishing Meryl Streep.

    6. We should be careful with David's post here. While he has been on a release program for many years, it is fairly common knowledge that David was a key player in a ring of West Coast sex offenders who trafficked in minors, kidnapping them for use by Russian Military bigwigs. The ring operated out of Trump Tower and David was in charge of the division that disposed of the Children's bodies after they had been killed. Ironic he goes right for the Peirs Morgan talking point as sperm with his DNA was found on several of the Children's bodies that were recovered. The Cheers David mentions, of course, were for a film about the Holocaust, which is also ironic in that David's group were known to don Nazi garb before executing the kids. It's fortunate, however, that the new era of Trump, the candidate of David's lifetime Party of choice, has brought us this new era in truth telling where the facts of his background can come to the surface.

    7. David, interestingly in a comment to Somerby's post about lying, you lie! And unlike Joe Wilson I won't have to apologize for my exclamation.

      Streep did not cheer for Polanski at the same event, in fact she merely cheered for Polanski winning Best Director in 2003, along with everyone else. Hey maybe those thousands of muslims in New Jersey were actually cheering for Polanski, maybe that's the part of the story that is wrong.

      Polanski did not drug and anally rape a 13 year old. He was hired by Vogue to photograph young models, one of which he had consensual sex with but who happened to be 13 at the time. Polanski agreed to a plea bargain where he pleaded guilty to Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a minor and a penalty of served time and probation; however, word came that the judge was going to ignore the plea bargain and sentence him to many years, so Polanski fled the country. The victim did wind up suing Polanski for a bunch of money (she claims the sex encounter was not as consensual as Polanski claims), and has stated that she feels like the case against Polanski should be dismissed.

      The reason Polanski was taking those photos is because there is a culture of certain men that desire to be feed those images. Trump is part of that culture. Here is what Trump said about his buddy Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted sex offender:

      "I've known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life."

      Indeed Trump is currently accused of raping a 13 year old at an Epstein hosted party. Trump is also accused of many other sexual misconduct. Amongst numerous horrible acts, he apparently raped his ex-wife and is sexually stimulated by his own daughter.

      Streep ignored Trump's corrupt sexual activity, and she should not have. If you want to preach, admonish Streep for ignoring Trump's deviant sexual behavior.

      David your strange claim of Streep's tribalism is empty. Streep makes no claim to a tribe and is only excoriating Trump's terrible behavior. Possibly you experienced that as tribalism due to some affinity you have for Trump and his behavior, but I hope not.

  3. Propaganda Alert!
    No white police office has ever been lynched. Anyone who wants to believe that claim should check the history of lynching. Lynching is the extra-judicial killing of African Americans.

    Quite rich coming from someone complaining about "lies".

  4. Lies are almost always self-referential, meaning only the person who is lying knows that. Seems like it would be very hard to get into someone's head to claim the following: (a) they know that what they are saying is counter-factual (b) they are doing it an explicit intent to mislead. For most of us, it simply suffices to know that what a politician is saying is counter-factual, inaccurate, and misleading -- without attributing a particular intent to them.

    1. I disagree, everyone knows when Trump is lying except his supporters. His lies are like those of small children -- easily contradicted by obvious evidence, internally inconsistent and inconsistent with past statements. He is a terrible liar.

    2. Oh, I disagree. Trump's supporters also know he is lying, they just don't care because, after all, he's The Donald who's gonna "shake things up."

      In fact, to them his lying is another badge of honor that shows how "unconventional" and "anti-establishment" he is.

    3. "shake things up" = kicking down on minorities.
      It's how you win elections in the good old US of A.

  5. From wikipedia

    Lynchings took place most frequently against African American men and women in the South. Lynchings occurred most frequently from 1890 to the 1920s, a time of political suppression of blacks by whites, with a peak in 1892. Lynchings were also very common in the Old West, where the victims were most frequently Natives, Mexicans, and Chinese, and to a lesser extent, African Americans.[1]...

    The Tuskegee Institute has recorded 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites being lynched between 1882 and 1968,

  6. First, in the reality based world, Trump has rendered any discussion of "Lies" moot. What the WSJ creep was no doubt advocating is not weather or not to say Trump lies, but rather reserve his right to fail to point out when The President has said something utterly inaccurate. Trump is a clown, and he WSJ guy is a clown.

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