The Times decides to traffic "lies!"


Excitement replaces old order: Our report from Friday afternoon is now officially quaint.

At issue was a set of strange claims about The National Butterfly Center, which really does exist. At issue was a basic question:

How should a major news org—in this instance, the Washington Post—refer to such peculiar claims? What would be a journalistically accurate way of describing such claims?

In its headline, the Post had called the claims "false," and that's what they presumably are. At one or two points, the Post also referred to these claims as "baseless."

But along the way, the Post also cited the local police chief. This is what he was said to have said about these inflammatory claims:

IATI (2/4/22): Mission Police Chief Robert Dominguez said there was no evidence that the butterfly center was involved in any form of trafficking. The U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a message.

According to the local chief, there's "no evidence" in support of these claims. On that basis, we asked a question which now seems quaint:

If there's no evidence in support of a claim, should a major news org refer to the claim as "false?"

Yesterday morning, along came the New York Times to render this question quaint. On the front page of its Sunday editions, the Times ran a lengthy report about this same unfortunate topic. 

How did the New York Times decide to refer to these claims? Online, the Times report begins as shown, exciting headline included:

How a Butterfly Refuge at the Texas Border Became the Target of Far-Right Lies

For nearly two decades, the National Butterfly Center has provided a place of wonder along the banks of the Rio Grande, attracting curious visitors and nature enthusiasts from around the country to watch delicate creatures like the xami hairstreak float over flowers and alight on logs.

Among those who trade in outlandish right-wing conspiracies online, though, the center is said to be something else: a cover for human smuggling, sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. The lies have spread so widely in recent years that the center is now receiving visitors with no interest in butterflies at all.

Last month, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia came to the center looking for a site of human smugglers and had a physical altercation with its director. Days later, a man from an upstart media organization associated with Steve Bannon recorded a video outside the center’s gates, claiming “credible threats of the cartels trafficking children through the butterfly center.” To make his point, he held up a tiny shoe.


In a country where many believe that Satan-worshiping pedophiles run the government and the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. will restore a Trump presidency, the butterfly center has become the latest unlikely victim of wild misinformation and outright lies spreading rapidly online. It has become a borderland version of Comet Ping Pong, the Washington pizzeria that became the center of the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claimed that Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring in the restaurant. That lie spread so far that it prompted a North Carolina man to drive to the pizzeria and fire an assault rifle inside.

Forget about the quaint distinctions between "baseless," "unfounded" and "false." The New York Times came along and went straight to the L-bomb: "lies."

Also, to outright lies. Most thrillingly, to far-right lies.

That said, are the people spreading these outlandish theories actually dealing in "lies?" In a world where large numbers of people believe all sorts of outlandish claims, should the outlandish claims in question be described as "lies?"

Until recently, major journalist would have thought long and hard about such designations. Today, the L-bomb spreads excitement within our tribe, and so it goes straight to page A1 in the New York Times' Sunday editions.

We won't bother explaining the difference between an unfounded claim and a lie. We certainly won't waste our time explaining the way this distinction actually matters in the grand scheme of things.

For today, we'll only tell you this:

It didn't do so with complete success, but the Washington Post was trying to play by an older set of (sound) journalistic rules. 

Two days later, playing catch-up, the New York Times busted through those old rules. It gave us the thrill we currently like. This represents a substantial change in the basic journalistic order.

Should crazy, unfounded claims be referred to as "lies?" 

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. As Freud himself most famously said, "Sometimes a crazy, unfounded claim is just a crazy, unfounded claim."

A crazy claim isn't always a lie. So spoke an older, more careful, more intelligent journalistic order.

And yes, it actually makes a difference—though we've given up on the pointless task of explaining why.

Upon further reflection, a hint: Consider two different statements:

"Donald J. Trump told a lie."

Those are so-called fighting words. Tribal schisms widen.

"Donald J. Trump has never offered any evidence in support of his claim."

Those words create a substantially different dynamic. They start to create the possibility of peeling some voters away.


  1. "If there's no evidence in support of a claim, should a major news org refer to the claim as "false?""

    You're missing the point, dear Bob.

    There may not be any claims to speak of, or indeed no "National Butterfly Center".

    Dembot media are doing its job: hate-mongering. That's their only job. That's what they do.

    And that's all there is to it.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. So, where did the congressional candidate from VA go then? You mean this place doesn't exist:
      What are you talking about?

    3. It may or may not exist. If it does exist it may or may not be involved in trafficking. There may be claims, or no claims to speak of. That's not the point.

      The point is liberal hate-mongering, plain and simple.

      If they manage to find something that can be blown out of proportion for the sake of hate-mongering - they will.

      And if they can't, they'll invent something, make something up.

      Like the Nick Sandmann story.

      That's what I'm saying. Does it seem complicated?

    4. Mao,
      Thanks for not jumping in yesterday to pretend there is a Republican voter who isn't a bigot.

    5. So, it's fair to say, Mao, that you may or may not be involved in child pornography?
      So, the butterfly center, which may or may not exist, may or may not be involved in:
      1. Human trafficking
      2. Counterfeiting
      3. Cannibalism
      ...and on and on and on. Do you get it?

    6. Oh dear. It doesn't matter what's fair and what's not, dear Ilya. It doesn't matter what we or anyone else may or may not be involved in.

      The point is hate-mongering, hate-mongering campaign by your liberal cult.

      Same as in the Nick Sandmann story.

    7. You mean that you haven't bothered to read any stories on this or become acquainted with any facts?

    8. We're acquainted with the facts alright. The facts conveyed to you three times here already. Alas, to no avail.

  2. One tribe solely relies on faith - a lack of evidence - for the thing that is a big deal in their cultural life, which is religion. How does their tribe interpret "never offered any evidence in support of his claim."? So what, they say. Evidence is for suckers, they say. We have our own facts, they literally have said.

    Btw, this approach has occurred many times over the past year, specifically related to election fraud. Hundreds in the press and in congress have asked right wingers to respond to the fact that no evidence has been presented to support election fraud having occurred, and right wingers always respond with indignation and outrage, they DO NOT respond by saying "huh, interesting, I should consider that".

    "They start to create the possibility of peeling some voters away."

    There is zero evidence for this.

  3. "In a world where large numbers of people believe all sorts of outlandish claims, should the outlandish claims in question be described as "lies?""

    Yes, of course they should. Somerby refuses to connect the dots between these motivated outlandish claims and the law suit over building Trump's wall. He refuses to acknowledge the efforts to pressure the butterly sanctuary and the connection between those lies and that legal effort. Somerby refuses to see that the visits to the sanctuary looking for children is part of the pressure being exerted too. This is not only about those outlandish statements but about the entire effort to build Trump's wall, no matter who stands in the way, bulldozing opposition.

    Somerby pretends this is a philosophical question about when is a lie really a lie. It isn't. This is about strong-arm tactics used by the right to bully a non-profit into folding its lawsuit.

    In that context -- yes, this is a matter of seeing things in context -- these statements are part of a campaign against the sanctuary. They are not dispassionate statements of fact, but manipulative campaigning against the sanctuary to tarnish them in the public eye and perhaps even sic the law on them.

    OF COURSE the Trump supporters behind this know they are lying, even if the dupes who come to protest the sanctuary may not. And these need to be held accountable for their destructive actions.

    Somerby's narrow focus is to blame here. And yes, Somerby knows what he is doing when he refuses to see the larger context, and pretends this is about how we test knowledge, not fraud and manipulation.

    I am tired of Somerby's efforts to advance the right wing's agenda here. He isn't fooling anyone. It is time for him to admit his allegiances and stop pretending there is any question that the NY Times should have reported this exactly as they did. The right has forfeited any claim to benefit of the doubt, long ago. They have become scum and so is Somerby these days.

  4. The only news here is that the right wing attacked a butterfly sanctuary. There is nothing newsworthy about the lies they told in doing so. The content of those lies need not be examined by the NY Times, as if there were any doubt that they are lies.

  5. There's WAY more proof that all Republicans are bigots, than there is that this Butterfly Sanctuary is a pedophile ring. Yet Somerby has been lying that all Republicans aren't bigots anyway.

  6. Professor Smith, of Fat Mao University, has been
    repeating the unsupported claim that two plus two
    equals five.
    Professor Smith is lying about the results of adding
    two and two.
    How many Orwellian torturers can dance on the
    head of a pin with Bob Somerby?

  7. How should the allegation that the Dems stole the 2020 election be described? Is it a lie, or is there simply no evidence for it?

    1. Some people lie about it and some people genuinely believe the outlandish claims. When Trump calls GA secretary of state and asks him to find the number of votes he lost by plus one -- what is he doing?

    2. When your political allies came out of the bathroom and started to wipe shit on the walls of our Capitol, it transitioned from unsupported opportunism to lie.

  8. Certainly looks like O”Donnell has you dead to rights on “legitimate political discourse”,Bob.