NEW YORK — President Donald Trump has been accused of dishonesty, spreading falsehoods, misrepresenting facts, distorting news, passing on inaccuracies and being loose with the truth. But does he lie?
It’s a loaded word, and some Trump critics believe major news organizations are too timid to use it. The Washington Post, which has documented more than 4,000 false or misleading claims by the president, declared for the first time last week that a Trump misstatement was a “lie.”
Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s plea deal provided “indisputable evidence that Trump and his allies have been deliberately dishonest” about hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler wrote. The Post put Kessler’s assessment on its front page, and it was the newspaper’s most-read story online.
Not only was it the first time the Post said Trump had lied, it was the first time the newspaper used the word for any politician since Kessler began his fact-checking operation in 2011.
Many news organizations resist using the word because of the question of intent. Editors feel it’s important to establish whether someone is spreading false information knowingly, intending to deceive, and it’s hard to get inside a person’s head.
While Kessler’s team has found 98 instances where Trump falsely claimed responsibility for the largest tax cut in U.S. history, the president may sincerely believe it, Kessler said.
At The Associated Press, “we feel it’s better to say what the facts are, say what the person said and let the audience make the decision whether or not it’s an intentional lie,” said John Daniszewski, the news cooperative’s standards editor.
Several readers told Kessler, in effect, that it’s about time. One critic, Paul Blest of the website Splinter, wrote, “Can you imagine any other politician being held to this comically low standard?” The Post’s milestone represents an abject failure, he wrote.
“It’s sort of a cover-up for those in power when you don’t call it a lie,” said Jeff Cohen, a just-retired journalism professor and a producer of the documentary “All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception and the Spirit of I.F. Stone,” about the late journalist. He said journalists need to cut through the fog, and the word “lie” is an effective tool.
Yet one prominent editor wonders whether the whole discussion misses the point.
“I hate the fact that the debate and discussion over the word ‘lie’ has obscured a larger truth, if you will,” Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, told CNN earlier this month. “Does it matter if The New York Times or The Washington Post uses the word ‘lie’ three times, seven times, 10 times, 20 times? Or does it matter more that the fact-checker has found 4,229 misleading statements?”
Trump’s birther movement questioning former President Barack Obama’s citizenship led both the Times and AP to use the word “lie.” In January 2017, the Times headlined a story “Trump repeats lie about popular vote in meeting with lawmakers,” to refer to his claim that immigrants illegally voting prevented him from receiving more of the popular vote than Hillary Clinton. While “lie” was in the headline, it wasn’t in the body of the story.
CNN’s “New Day” anchor John Berman said on the air that Trump had lied about his policy of separating families at the U.S. border. Stories surrounding the pre-election meeting between the president’s son and Russians about information damaging to the Clinton campaign were “a writhing hydra of dishonesty. You chop off one lie, and two emerge in its place,” Berman said.
Cohen said the Post’s decision to use the word last week could influence others in the media to do so more often. The night the story appeared, CNN’s Chris Cuomo pressed Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to admit the administration lied and that’s why people didn’t trust Trump. Not surprisingly, Conway demurred.
Kessler urged caution.
“It just seems like a moment,” he said. “It’s not something we plan to do on a regular basis. You can’t speak too soon, but I’d be surprised if it was more than a once-in-a-presidency case.”
Using “lie” casually or imprecisely could strike readers more as opinion than fact, said the AP’s Daniszewski.
That’s a major consideration when Trump rails against the “fake news” media. He has called fact-checkers “dishonest scum” and “crooked as hell” and this month referred to the Post’s “Pinocchio” scale measuring the egregiousness of misstatements. “If I’m right, or if I’m 97.3 percent right, they will say, ‘He’s got a Pinocchio’ or ‘He’s lying,'” Trump said. “They are bad people.”
The result is fact-checkers are as concerned about an erosion of public trust in fact-checking as the media in general are about their coverage. The independent Politifact has tried to build trust among Trump voters by fact-checking politicians in West Virginia, Alabama and Oklahoma, said Aaron Sharockman, the organization’s executive editor.
Politifact avoids the use of “lie,” though it does proclaim a “lie of the year.” Trump “won” in 2015 and 2017. Its rating for the worse misstatements — “pants on fire” — certainly implies the word. Trump has been awarded a total of 85 “pants on fire” designations.
“It doesn’t benefit Politifact to call someone a liar,” Sharockman said, “because it’s not our aim to play ‘gotcha.'”