Again with the basic skills: We've been catching up on old blog posts today. We were intrigued by a discussion by Kevin Drum.
The post appeared last Saturday. Drum was reacting to Shepard Smith's complaints about the Trump camp's serial "lies."
(Why didn't we see the post in real time? If you ever decide to fact-check Maddow, you'll find you have time for little else, pretty much just like us.)
"Journalists are reluctant to call something a lie, and with good reason," Drum wrote. He then presented the basic reasons behind this long-standing policy, which is, on the whole, very wise.
(That's especially true for reporters, as opposed to opinion writers. But, for about ten million reasons, it's basically wise all around.)
In the passage shown below, Drum explained why journalists have, by long tradition, avoided dropping L-bombs. On the one hand, this is extremely basic stuff. On the other hand, his reasoning is basically sound:
DRUM (7/15/17): Journalists are reluctant to call something a lie, and with good reason. To be a lie, something has to be incontrovertibly untrue and the speaker has to know it’s untrue. Politicians say incontrovertibly untrue things frequently, but it’s the second part of this formula that trips us up. Short of mind reading, how can we know that they were aware of the falsehood?Most of the time, a journalist can't be sure that a misstatement was a lie. Still, Drum says, there are times we can know for sure.
Occasionally, of course, we really can know for sure. Most of the time, though, we just have to do our best, and we have to apply a standard of “beyond reasonable doubt,” not “beyond all possible doubt.”
There are times when we know that a statement's a lie. As Drum continues, he gives a recent example:
DRUM (continuing directly): In the case of Don Jr. and the meeting with the Russian attorney, we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We know that his first statement was not off the cuff, but carefully crafted on Air Force One by the White House. He said it was just a quick meeting about Russian adoptions. The next day, after the New York Times demonstrated this was untrue, he admitted it was actually about getting dirt on Hillary. Two days later, after the Times once again poked holes in his story, he released emails showing that he knew beforehand it was part of a Russian government effort to smear Hillary Clinton.The reasoning here seems amazing. Drum cites Trump Junior's initial statement as an example of a clear-cut lie. And then, he offers a paraphrase of what Trump Junior said! He doesn't even quote him!
At each step along the way, he admitted only what he had to. He revealed more only when forced by the Times. No reasonable person thinks he just forgot about all this until the Times jogged his memory. He was, obviously, lying.
Before we started The Daily Howler, we toyed with two other ideas.
First, we thought about writing a spoof called "My Life on Earth, Among 'The People.' " It would have been the story of a being from a more advanced world.
In the story, the author would have been sent to Earth to send back dispatches about these amusing, primitive lifeforms called "people." In short, the author would have been sent to Earth to amuse his own society's rulers.
This spoof would have been written as a parody of 19th century dispatches from British explorers discussing more "primitive" people. We abandoned the gloomy idea when we realized that we didn't the slightest idea how to write such a parody.
After that, we planned a comic novel called Socrates Reads. Eventually, we settled on The Daily Howler.
Who would do what Drum did here? Who would present a paraphrased statement as the ultimate example of an obvious "lie?"
In the past two weeks, we've been musing on the level of basic skills possessed by us the people. By human standards, Kevin Drum is quite smart.
That said, who reasons like that? Who would cite a paraphrased statement as the perfect example of an obvious lie?
Concerning that initial statement: Having said that, is it true? Did Trump Junior's initial statement qualify as a "lie?"
In this July 9 report by the New York Times, his initial statements are quoted at considerable length. For various reasons known to past humans, we would go with a no.
By traditional standards, we wouldn't say that his quoted statements were obvious lies. All in all, it isn't even clear to us that his statements were misstatements. (If we try to use our words, we can probably describe the situation more clearly.)
(Here's the Day Two New York Times report, with Trump Junior's second-day statements.)
Might we make one final statement about the desire to drop L-bombs? Our statement goes something like this:
Lies tend to be in the eye of the beholder. Conservatives can rattle off a long list of lies by Barack Obama. It isn't entirely clear that their claims are always wrong.
Remember when Candidate Obama said he didn't favor an individual mandate—that it wouldn't be necessary? That helped him beat Candidate Clinton and then McCain. He suddenly changed his mind after winning the November 2008 election.
Was his original statement a "lie?" Within the political sphere, little is ever gained by attempting to make such assessments. That's especially true at highly partisan times.
The Others are always seen as the liars. It never seems true Over Here.