How the debate got started: Two Sundays ago, it started.
On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd was speaking with Gerard Baker, editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal. With our journalistic culture crumbling around him, Brother Todd asked a question:
Should journalists call a lie a lie?
After Brother Todd popped the question, Baker gave Todd a reply.
Should journalists call a lie a lie? As a general matter, we'd say the answer is no.
Just last night, an unnamed major cable star helped us see why the L-bomb can be dangerous. In her case, she made several basic factual errors, trailing L-bombs behind her as she proceeded.
In fairness, most journalists aren't as kooky or self-indulgent as this rapidly fading star. For today, let's just consider what Todd and Baker 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—That's what the twin titans said. For starters, let's frisk Todd's question, simplifying his language the tiniest bit:
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?
BAKER: You know, it's a good— I'd be careful about using the word "lie." "Lie" implies much more than just saying something is false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead. I think it's perfectly—
When Donald Trump says thousands of people were on the rooftops of New Jersey on 9/11 celebrating, thousands of Muslims were there celebrating, I think it's right to investigate that claim, to report what we found, which is that nobody found any evidence of that whatsoever, and to say that.
I think it's then up to the readers to make up their own mind, to say, "This is what Donald Trump says, this is what a reliable, trustworthy news organization reports. And you know what, I don't think that's true."
I think if you start ascribing a moral intent, as it were, to someone by saying that they've lied, I think you run the risk that you look like you are being—you're not being objective. And I do think also it implies that people—
This is happening all the time now, people are looking at what Donald Trump is saying and saying this is false, this is a false claim. I think people say, "Well you know what, Hillary Clinton said a lot of things that were false. I don't recall the press being quite so concerned about saying that she lied when, in headlines or in stories like that."
If somebody says an outright falsehood, should a reporter say that he or she "lied?"
Basically, that's the question Todd asked. It's a perfectly sensible question.
That said, we'd be inclined to pose a second question in return:
If Person A says an outright falsehood, what would be wrong with reporting that Person A "said an outright falsehood?"
What exactly would be wrong with using language like that? Even that language strikes us as a bit problematic. But what's wrong with using language which simply reports that Person A made a statement which is blatantly or plainly false? Why do we want to jump ahead to the claim that Person A "lied?"
As a starter, that's the question we'd pose to Todd.
Now let's turn to Baker. He starts off noting an obvious fact: When we say that Person A lied, we've gone beyond the mere claim that Person A made a misstatement.
As Baker notes, we're now saying that Person A deliberately tried to mislead us. This takes us into the realm of intent, and intent is typically hard to demonstrate or know.
When Trump made the statement to which Baker refers, was he telling a lie? Was he telling a lie when he continued making his claim, even after evidence began to indicate that his statement was almost certainly wrong?
It's hard to nail down an answer to such questions. In partisan times like these, the claim that Person A (or Donald Trump) lied will tend to end the consideration of what Person A did. One tribe will cheer; the other tribe will leave the room. Inevitably, the reporter will have to admit that he can't quite demonstrate or prove Person A's intent.
Our basic point for the day:
There is a lot of very strong language which falls short of the claim that So-and-so "lied." In the past several decades, our mainstream reporters have very rarely turned to the use of such language, even when discussing public figures who seem to make wild misstatments as a matter of course.
There's a lot of strong language which falls short of the claim that So-and-so "lied." In most cases, we'd suggest that reporters try that sort of language out before they jump ahead to the diagnosis of "lies."
In future episodes of this series, we'll look at some of the punditry which followed Todd and Baker's exchange. We also may look at Baker's statement in a bit more detail. As he continued along, we thought he got rather wobbly. How often has Brother Baker pondered questions like this?
That said, "outright falsehood" is strong language. Has Brother Todd ever used it? We'll guess the answer is no.