Finding an upside to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is a struggle. The billionaire former reality television star has coarsened the national dialogue about race and immigration, made personal attacks on his opponents commonplace, and spewed so many falsehoods and exaggerations into the national conversation that truth – always a casualty in presidential campaigns – seems to matter even less than it usually does.
It’s in that last area though, that maybe, just maybe, we can find a silver lining: Having used up his allowable limit of candidate innuendo and exaggeration early on, Trump decided to simply make stuff up. Perhaps now, finally, the mainstream media will call a lie a lie.
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“Watching the arc of this campaign, I see a lot of complaints about the media not calling him out as a liar and not being strong enough, and that’s something that I hadn’t really seen before,” said Jane Elizabeth, a senior research project manager who leads the Fact-Checking Project at the American Press Institute.
“You’re seeing people telling the media that they aren’t being strident enough or forceful enough, complaining that they are waiting until the seventh paragraph of a story to say ‘this is outright false,” she said.
And it’s starting to have an effect, Elizabeth added. “Really it’s in the last week or so that I’ve begun seeing a more forceful description of his statements as being lies, or very untruthful, and calling him out on these things right away.”
National Journal columnist Ron Fournier said, “It’s something the media has been wrestling with a lot in the last 10 or 20 years, since the Iraq War, when a lot of people – and I don’t include President Bush in this – but many people around him were saying things that they knew, or should have known, were wrong.”
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Fournier, when he served as Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, was responsible for an effort at the revered wire service to identify falsehoods in political discourse as just that.
“We decided that when the truth is that someone is telling a falsehood, you should scrub your copy of weasel words, like ‘experts say’ and just write, ‘the governor is wrong,’” Fournier said.
“If it’s a lie, why not call it that? And in [Trump’s] case, even if I was a straight news reporter, the facts are very clear that Donald Trump is saying things that are wrong, and have been proven to be wrong, and he continues saying them anyway. That’s a lie.”
Editorial and op-ed pages are, of course, an exception. Editorial boards and columnists, like Fournier, have long felt much more freedom to call a lie a lie. The New York Times did it last week with Trump, and The Washington Post did it on Friday. And – it seems like ages ago – Times columnist, William Safire rocked the political world in 1996 when he branded Hillary Clinton “a congenital liar.”
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Of course, some newspapers have independent fact-checkers, like The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who has awarded Trump “four Pinocchios” on several occasions. There are also independent fact-checking organizations, such as Politifact, which has bestowed its “Pants on Fire” rating on Trump 15 different times.
Some in the industry, like longtime media critic and fact-checker Jack Shafer, now at Politico, feel that the rise of fact-checking sites have, for years, freed journalists to call out falsehoods.
In an emailed reply to a question for this article, Shafer wrote, “Since the fact-checker genre arrived, the press has become more comfortable in grading the truth value of the statements of politicians and other public figures. I don't think Trump has made it easier or harder for the press to call out blatant misstatements of fact.” Shafer himself provides a helpful taxonomy of lies in the current presidential primary campaigns.
(Note though, that even many of those in the business of calling out falsehoods dance around the subject of “lying.” Pinocchio’s nose grew when he lied, but in Kessler’s explanation of his system, even a four-Pinocchio statement is called just “a whopper.” At Politifact, the editors leave it to the reader’s imagination to add the “Liar, liar” to a “Pants on Fire” ruling, which they bestow when a statement “is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”)
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Still, in straight news reporting, calling someone a liar is no small thing, because it goes beyond the facts in dispute to the question of intentionality. A person can say something wildly untrue without it technically being a lie, so long as they actually believe what they are saying. And in his wonderful essay On Bullshit, Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt points out that a vast number of the statements that come out of the mouths of our public figures are neither true nor false, nor are they meant to be either.
As Philip Bump recently pointed out in The Washington Post, there’s not a lot of benefit to a straight news reporter to calling out a public figure for lying, and there’s plenty of downside.
However, faced with his relentless – I’ll say it: lying – more and more reporters are pointing out that Donald Trump is willfully and repeatedly saying things that are untrue, even after the facts have been very publicly corrected.
As he explains the media’s reluctance to label Trump a liar, the headline of Bump’s piece, “Why the Media Won’t Say Donald Trump Is Lying,” suggests that the reluctance may be fading by implying that The Donald is, well, a liar.
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At Fortune, Matthew Ingram takes the fact that Trump is a liar as given in his recent piece asking how the media ought to handle him.
In an appearance on Meet the Press last week, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, a straight news man if there ever was one, called out Trump and other candidates over “flat out lies” in their campaign rhetoric.
So is the tide turning? National Journal’s Fournier thinks it may be, though whether it’s a good thing or a bad one is unclear. The proliferation of online news sites and the velocity with which information – true and false – spreads through social media means that there is a need for outlets that are willing to call out liars.
“What bullies and cynical leaders – like Donald Trump – are able to do is use the new media against the public. It’s so much easier for people to fool themselves,” said Fournier. “We have case after case after case in this cycle of candidates saying things that are flat out false…. This election is just full of falsehoods. If you want to have a role in this game you have to be able to say, ‘This is bullshit.’”
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However, he adds, if mainstream media organizations don’t scrupulously work to fact-check both sides, they run the risk of further atomizing a media landscape that already makes it very simple for readers to limit their consumption to stories that fit their worldview while dismissing stories that don’t as biased and false.
The sad reality is that, even if the press is slowly waking up to its responsibility to call a lie a lie, it may be coming too late.
“We’re starting to do what we always should have done,” said Fournier. “The irony is that now there are fewer people who trust us. They either don’t hear us, or they don’t believe us.”