President Donald Trump is an unrepentant and unrelenting liar. It’s hard to think of a more basic and fundamental fact about American politics, and yet somehow, many news outlets often refuse to state outright when Trump is deceiving the public.
There are some signs things are changing, as media reporter Paul Fahri pointed out earlier this week. He noted that some outlets seem to be getting more comfortable calling out Trump’s lies as lies, despite initial hesitance. To prove this point, he cited recent headlines from CNN, Los Angeles Times, and the Financial Times. (He pointed to an example in the Chicago Tribune, as well, but it was an opinion piece, where standards are laxer.) The New York Times and the Associated Press, too, Fahri pointed out, have previously called Trump’s promotion of birtherism a lie.
Yet the unjustified resistance to labeling many of Trump’s lies as such persists.
Now, I should acknowledge that there is one good reason to avoid calling some of Trump’s false claims “lies.” Without putting to fine a point on it, Trump has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that he is not particularly well-informed about politics or policy. He gets a lot of his information from fact-intolerant outlets like Fox News. Because of these considerations, and the general facts about human fallibility, it’s always worth considering whether Trump is just wrong or mistaken — rather than intentionally lying — when he says something false. Even if the truth seems obvious, Trump might just not realize what he is saying is wrong and would have said something different if he knew the facts. It may then be incorrect to call his claim a lie.
But above and beyond these considerations, the reluctance to label Trump’s lies is perplexing. Fahri documents several of the other explanations given for declining to label a false claim as a lie:
- New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet has said they limit the use of the word lie because it “could feed the mistaken notion that we’re taking political sides.”
- The Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler said: “You can’t get into someone’s head.”
- Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact, which largely avoids the word “lie,” said: “It’s much more important to point out why Trump is wrong and what the actual evidence shows.”
Additionally, Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour has made a related claim about the policy of avoiding the word “lie” on her program: “We can’t know what’s in someone mind, so we’re much more comfortable with when somebody says something that cannot be born out by the facts, we say what they said was ‘inaccurate’ or ‘false.'”