Opinion

With Donald Trump, the word 'lie' finally enters the mainstream media lexicon: Neil Macdonald

It takes an organization as fearless and respected as the Times to lead the way, especially when dealing with a president who, with a word and a gesture, can unleash millions of angry flying monkeys.

Trump employs falsehoods on a level never seen in modern Western politics

It took more than a year for news organizations to begin using the word. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When Justin Trudeau, during the last election, dismissed the $15 billion worth of military materiel being manufactured in Canada for export to Saudi Arabia as "Jeeps," he uttered a verifiable falsehood. It was simply untrue.

The vehicles are armoured warfighting machines, equipped with medium and heavy machine guns and cannons capable of firing heavy shells and missiles. Trudeau must have known that. If he didn't, he was negligent, or stupid, or both.

But was it a lie?  

Journalists mocked Trudeau, and debunked the statement to the point where it must have embarrassed him, but no respectable news outlet called it a lie or Trudeau a liar. It was treated as political hyperbole – spin.

Stephen Harper got the same treatment for some of his dodgier declarations (see: Mike Duffy affair). So have other prime ministers.

Misleading claims by Harper were called out, but they weren't called "lies" outright. (Shutterstock / Art Babych)

The very best fact-checkers, organizations such as Factcheck.org, or Politifact.com, or Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post, prefer to simply lay out the facts and rate the truthfulness of the statement. Kessler also assigns between one and four "Pinocchios."

Pinocchio is a proxy word, like "nose-stretcher," which derives from the same fairy tale; using it implicitly recognizes the power and finality of deploying the word "lie" itself.

As National Public Radio notes, "lie" implies intent; generally, lying involves knowingly misleading someone for a selfish reason. NPR and other trusted news outlets instead lean toward terms like "baseless" or "without evidence" or "false."

When former U.S. president Bill Clinton went into micro-hairsplitting on what does and doesn't qualify as sex, famously declaring: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," he was ridiculed by the mainstream media, but not called a liar.

Even left-leaning journalist David Corn, in his polemical book The Lies of George W. Bush, was careful to note in the introduction that all presidents utter falsehoods, and often must do so for the sake of their country. Corn deliberately used "lies" in the title to sell books, knowing the word is radical and jarring and outside journalistic convention.

Until now.  

Using the 'L' word

A few days ago, a New York Times headline stated: "Meeting with Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie."

Remember, this is the New York Times, one of the most traditionalist and respected news sources in the English language.

And it wasn't the first time. On Sept. 16, the Times ran a story under the headline: "Donald Trump Clung to 'Birther' Lie for Years, and Still Isn't Apologetic."

If you're tempted to point out that the Times is a fortress of coastal liberalism (it is), have a look at this item in the Weekly Standard, an aggressively neo-conservative magazine edited, until last month, by William Kristol.

The article states that "if media reports about crowd size are so important to Trump that he'd push [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer out there to lie for him, then it means that all the tinpot-dictator, authoritarian, characterological tics that people worried about during the campaign are still very much active."

Even the Weekly Standard called out the "lies" by Trump's press secretary.

So. Why are media across the spectrum – and by that I mean the normal spectrum, not the paranoid ooze occupied by the likes of Breitbart and Drudge – suddenly using the word "lie" so casually when reporting on Donald Trump?

The answer is that Trump employs falsehoods on a level never seen in modern Western politics; he tells lies like a howitzer launches shells. At the risk of triggering Godwin's law, he isn't the first authoritarian to realize that if you're going to lie, a lot of big ones tend to work best. They overwhelm.

And even at that, it took more than a year for news organizations to begin using the word.

More than a falsehood

Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, authorized the newspaper's first use of "lie" to describe a Trump falsehood.

He told NPR that Trump's years of insistence, despite clear proof to the contrary, that Barack Obama was born abroad, probably Africa, was more than a falsehood. It was, he said, stated repeatedly and deliberately and with malice.

"I think to say that that was a 'falsehood' wouldn't have captured, to be frank, the outrageousness of his claim. I think to have called it just a falsehood would have put it in the category of, to be frank, 'usual political fare,' where politicians say, 'My tax plan will save a billion dollars,' but it's actually a half a billion ... This was something else."

Similarly, falsely asserting that millions somehow managed to vote illegally, in an attempt to elect Hillary Clinton is meant to delegitimize some people who are already an underclass, and make it more acceptable to move against them. It's more than a falsehood.

And it takes an organization as fearless and respected as the Times to lead the way, especially when dealing with a president who, with a word and a gesture, can unleash millions of angry flying monkeys who believe every word he says, and direct waves of hate at anyone who contradicts him.

This president wants a war with his country's reporters. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Trump has now responded by declaring a "running war with the media."

No serious news outlet would ever say such a thing, because no serious news outlet wants a war with a president. This president wants one with reporters, though — it provides someone to blame for his failures.

And it helps that journalists can often be craven and obsequious and desperate for access. Trump has a predator's eye for such weakness.

How should journalism respond? The ridiculously hyperbolic Dan Rather suggested this week that when Trump lies, journalists should meet it with "cold steel, oak and iron."

Here's a better suggestion: meet lies with journalism. Ten years from now, the New York Times will be the New York Times. Donald Trump will be the ex-president who debased the dignity of the highest office in America.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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