Part 2—We liberals insisted on "lies:" Way back when, early last fall, presidential candidate Donald J. Trump authored one of his many moments.
It all began on Wednesday, September 14, 2016. Candidate Trump journeyed to Flint, where he delivered a heartfelt address to a reported 50 people in a local church.
At one point, he began trashing Candidate Clinton. The local minister interrupted, saying this: "Mr. Trump, I invited you here to thank us for what we've done for Flint, not to give a political speech."
Trump accepted the minster's direction and pulled himself back in line.
The next morning, Candidate Trump appeared on Fox & Friends, perhaps the most god-awful program in the history of "cable news." During this appearance, he described his experience at the church, offering an account which was perhaps less than completely accurate.
At this point, National Public Radio stepped into the fray.
NPR's Scott Detrow had been in the church in Flint, serving as the press corps' pool reporter. In response to Trump's remarks on Fox & Friends, Detrow published this account of what had actually happened.
NPR published Detrow's report under this offensive headline:
"Trump Criticizes Flint Pastor—But Misstates Key Facts About Their Encounter"
What made the headline offensive? According to some in our liberal tents, NPR shouldn't have said that Trump had "misstated key facts." NPR should have said that Donald J. Trump had "lied."
Should Detrow, or Detrow's editors, have said that Trump had "lied?" Just for the record, Deytrow cited only two alleged misstatements by Trump, and one of the two involved a highly subjective matter of judgment.
(Did the minster really "seem nervous" at the start of the event?)
Regarding the second alleged misstatement, should NPR have said that Trump lied? In response to such assertions, NPR's public editor, Michael Oreskes, offered this instant defense of Detrow's report, and of NPR's headline.
Oreskes offered a somewhat limited case for eschewing the L-word in this instance. He didn't state the most obvious reason: in all likelihood, NPR didn't know whether Donald J. Trump had lied.
You can read Oreskes' short piece for yourself. For our money, the skill level displayed in the piece wasn't gigantically high.
A few months later, Donald J. Trump had been sworn in as president-for-life, lord of all he surveyed. Sure enough, this issue invaded NPR's tents again.
In this instance, Trump visited the CIA, where he made a short heartfelt address announcing his love for the intelligence community. On Wednesday morning, January 23, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly discussed Trump's remarks and attendant issues on NPR's Morning Edition.
Kelly's interview with Steve Inskeep ran 869 words. She said that some of Trump's recent statements had been "false," even "provably not true."
Below, you see the bulk of the passage where these critiques were offered. Rather plainly, this was not a Trump-friendly report:
INSKEEP (1/23/17): NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is in our studio. She's been speaking with members of the intelligence community, past and present.In our view, Kelly may have been ahead of her skies a bit in a few of her assessments. Example:
Good morning, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK, so he's not saying, "I'm making up with the intelligence agencies." He's saying, "I never had a problem with you to begin with."
KELLY: That's what he said. And that is false. President Trump is on record in statements, in tweets, in that news conference you just mentioned that he held as president-elect. And he is on the record ridiculing and attacking U.S. intelligence officials. So to suggest that the media made up this feud—
INSKEEP: His own statements.
KELLY: It's provably not true. In that same speech out of the CIA this weekend, Trump also falsely inflated the size of the crowd at his inauguration. In talking about the weather, he described that when he began to speak at his inauguration, the rain stopped immediately. And in fact, you could see water beating on the lapel of his coat.
Now, does it matter whether it rained or not?
KELLY: Who cares? But it does matter to the CIA veterans, who I was reaching out to this weekend. It rankles because he made these untrue claims and of where he made them, in the lobby of the CIA.
INSKEEP: And not just any lobby—there's a wall of stars behind him as he was speaking. And those stars represent something.
KELLY: They represent CIA officers who have died in the line of duty. And it's interesting. One of the former intelligence officers who I reached this weekend said there's the stars. And those are sacred if you work at CIA. But this person said, remember what's on the opposite wall, what Trump was looking at as he spoke.
And I have crossed that lobby, Steve, many times on my way to interview officials who work there. And carved in the marble on the opposite wall is this. It's a quotation from the Bible. And it reads, "and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
Trump may have attacked certain "U.S. intelligence officials." But did that mean that he was angry with "the intelligence agencies" in general?
Not necessarily, no. That said, when a chase is on, it can be easy for journalists to slip past such distinctions. We'd say Kelly was over her skies a tiny bit that day.
At any rate, and rather plainly, this was not a Trump-friendly report. Kelly had asserted all sorts of false statements by Trump. But once again, an NPR reporter had failed to use the word "lie."
When NPR listeners complained, Kelly returned for a second session in which she explained her decision.
On January 25, Kelly took part in a four-way discussion with Inskeep, Oreskes and host David Greene. What hadn't she said that Donald Trump lied? As part of her explanation, Kelly somewhat oddly said this:
KELLY (1/25/17): So this has prompted me to go actually look up the word "lie" in the Oxford English Dictionary. And here's the definition. I'll read it:Especially since she's a reporter, we agree with Kelly's decision. But did she really have to look up "lie" in the dictionary to know what the word has long meant? To understand the word's standard usage?
"A false statement made with intent to deceive."
"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, with publicly available facts.
INSKEEP: And leave you, leave the listener to make their own conclusions.
Mike Oreskes, how much discussion has there been about this word, lie?
ORESKES: There's been quite a bit. And of course, it began during the campaign. And we at NPR have decided not to use the word lie in most situations. And there's really two reasons...
Perhaps that was just performance art, designed to suggest that NPR was making the fullest possible effort to puzzle out this dispute. Surely, though, everyone knows the general meaning of the word "lie." Everyone knows that a lie, as a general matter, is an intentional false statement—a false statement made by a person who knows his statement is false.
Not long ago, we would have assumed that everyone was familiar with this simple-minded concept. We would have assumed that everyone knew that many or most misstatements, untruths and/or falsehoods actually aren't lies.
We would have assumed that everyone knew something else. We would have assumed that everyone knew that many misstatements which really are lies can't be reliably identified as such by external parties, for example by reporters. Here's the way that age-old problem goes:
Person A's statement was "provably untrue." Was Person A lying when he said it? If you're Person B or Reporter C, there's every chance that you won't be able to say for sure.
We would have thought that everyone was familiar with these basic points. But this is a highly partisan time, and a tribal chase is on.
When times are tribal, our basic skills and understandings may tend to head out the window. We may forget, ignore or fail to consider the most basic things we know.
In the high feeling of the moment, we may step around the things we know in search of the judgment we long to render.
We live in such a time right now. Over here in our liberal tents, our basic skills often seem to be AWOL.
Early in May, Masha Gessen stepped into the ring with NPR. Gessen is an admirable figure, but her basic skills seemed to be missing in action this day.
Her audience was laughing and applauding. But we'd have to say that the admirable Gessen wasn't quite using her words.
Tomorrow: Gessen scolds NPR
Also over at Slate: Last Friday, a similar discussion occurred at Slate, in this new Trumpcast.
Are Trump's speeches a tissue of lies? Our tribe is strongly inclined to say so.
Other explanations are possible—explanations which ought to be deeply troubling. We long to use our L-word so much, it seems that we never quite go there.