MONDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2022
Anthropology hurts: Yesterday, in its Sunday Magazine, the Washington Post published an essay by Margaret Sullivan.
Sullivan was The Post’s media columnist from 2016 until late August. For the record, she played a role in Campaign 2000 which has left us somewhat prejudiced against her.
Her essay was adapted from (what else?) her forthcoming book, “Newsroom Confidential.” Is there anyone in the mainstream press who hasn't managed to publish a book by now about Donald J. Trump and the Trump years?
Sullivan's essay concerned the difficulties of producing journalism about this profoundly disordered man. Our analysts screamed, then tore at their hair, when they read this early comment to Sullivan's essay:
COMMENT: The Earth is round. Anyone who says it is flat is telling a lie. The journalist's job is to pass along hard data that confirms or refutes a claim made by a politician. "Trickle-down economics" has never been proven to work in any country in the last 40 years. To not point this out in reporting is sloppy journalism at best, and being complicit at its worst.
"The Earth is round. Anyone who says it is flat is telling a lie." That's what the commenter said!
The analysts screamed and gnashed their teeth as they read that comment. "It's all anthropology now," we gently reminded the youngsters.
We won't even try to explain why the analysts reacted as they did. During these Trump years, we've learned, to our routine amazement, that many people in our own tribe are amazingly fuzzy, in their heads, about the traditional distinction according to which most misstatements or falsehoods don't qualify as "lies."
That commenter was reacting to a major theme in Sullivan's essay. In these passages, she discusses some of the things journalists have learned, or come to believe, from years of covering Trump:
SULLIVAN (10/16/22): Now, six years later, we journalists know a lot more about covering Trump and his supporters. We’ve come a long way, but certainly made plenty of mistakes. Too many times, we acted as his stenographers or megaphones. Too often, we failed to refer to his many falsehoods as lies. It took too long to stop believing that, whenever he calmed down for a moment, he was becoming “presidential.” And it took too long to moderate our instinct to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side was using misinformation for political gain.
From this new vantage point, it seemed self-evident that the mainstream press was too often going easy on Trump. Well into his presidency, journalists didn’t want to use the word “lie” for Trump’s constant barrage of falsehoods. To lie, editors reasoned, means to intend to be untruthful. Since journalists couldn’t be inside politicians’ heads, how were we supposed to know if—by this definition—they were really lying? The logic eventually became strained, given that Trump blithely repeated the same rank mistruths over and over.
Those who deny the outcome of the 2020 election certainly don’t deserve a media megaphone for that enduring lie, one that is likely to reemerge in the presidential campaign ahead. But the media should go one step further: When covering such a politician in other contexts—for example, about abortion rights or gun control—journalists should remind audiences that this public figure is an election denier.
In the second of those passages, Sullivan describes the traditional distinction to which we've referred—the traditional distinction between the full range of "falsehoods" and the narrower group of falsehoods which can be described as "lies."
By the traditions of the English language and its predecessors, a "lie" has always been a knowing misstatement—a falsehood uttered with the intention of misleading someone. According to this ancient, bone-simple distinction, if a person makes a misstatement they believe to be true, such people aren't said to be "lying."
This is roughly the simplest distinction in the history of the human race. In the Trump years, our journalists have made it amazingly clear that this millennia-old distinction is too complex for them to grasp.
We refuse to discuss this matter further. Only a fool would do such a thing. Sadly, this has long since become clear.
Here within our liberal tribe, we love to denounce certain statements as "lies." For that reason, our tribunes have given themselves blanket permission to do so.
Indeed, we scold ourselves for having failed to do this in the past! Amazingly, this actually seems to be the best we blue tribals can do.
"It's all anthropology now," we reminded the angry analysts as they sputtered and wailed. For the record, your lizard brain will rush to tell you that we're wrong—and you may find that you're strongly inclined to put your faith in your lizard!
Every misstatement isn't a lie! If a person genuinely believes that the last election was stolen, that person may be grossly misinformed, but he or she isn't telling a lie when he or she makes that statement.
During the childish journalism of the Trump years, no logician has come forward to discuss this blindingly obvious point. Of course, as we've noted again and again, there are no logicians now!
The logicians have all abandoned their posts. They play an array of silly games within their academic preserves. The logicians have left us here on our own—and things aren't going real well!