It is a truism to say that everyone lies to someone. Since public officials entrusted with power in our democracy are no exception to this human trait—as historical research documents—it should be exceedingly acceptable to point out that all politicians, from your local city council right up to the White House, lie as well. The Framers afforded the press special constitutional protection in large part to ensure that such lies would not reach the public unchallenged.
Tragically, one of the most honest rhetorical tools that journalists have in the fight for truth has been struck from the lingua franca of US journalists. Within the stilted framework of mainstream news “objectivity,” the simple act of calling out “lies” or “lying” by a politician—especially a president—is now taboo. It imputes impossible-to-determine motives to those accused, the thinking goes, so the use of these words to identify a documented falsehood is now considered controversial, partisan, inflammatory, unfair.
Last fall, NPR editorial director Michael Oreskes constructed his own Orwellian logic to defend his news organization’s refusal to use “liar,” asserting that the word constitutes “an angry tone” of “editorializing” that “confirms opinions” (FAIR.org, 3/1/17). In January, Maggie Haberman, one of the New York Times’ preeminent political reporters, said much the same, claiming that her job was “showing when something untrue is said. Our job is not to say ‘lied.’”
The absurd lengths to which corporate media will go to avoid calling presidential lies what they are has been readily apparent in the past month. After four US soldiers were killed in combat in Niger at the beginning of October—under still mysterious circumstances—Donald Trump and then his White House team issued a series of escalating and contradictory false claims to cover for their bumbling, belated response.
To its credit, the mainstream press did push back against Trump’s grossly untrue claims—at least initially. When Trump, in a Rose Garden press conference, boldly said he makes condolence calls to military next of kin unlike other presidents—namely, his predecessor—NBC News reporter Peter Alexander followed up and publicly disputed it with facts.
In any other walk of life, reasonable adults would recognize his statement as a pack of lies, spoken in a panic, with evident bad faith. But the closest that “straight news” journalism got to actually calling them “lies” was a New York Times headline (10/16/17) that stated, “Trump Falsely Claims Obama Didn’t Contact Families of Fallen Troops.”
This phrasing, “falsely claims”—or “falsely asserted”—has become corporate media’s default alternative to directly accusing the powerful of lying. But the journalistic instinct to vary a story’s language also works in favor of the powerful, allowing euphemisms for official lies to multiply throughout coverage. And rarely do these replacements do anything but weaken the indictment against the liar.
For example, the same Times story referenced above went from “falsely asserted” to a much more passive, even less forceful description just a few paragraphs later (all emphases added): “Mr. Trump’s assertion belied a long record of meetings Mr. Obama held with the families of killed service people.” As for the president’s embarrassingly obvious attempt at covering up his first lie with a bunch of others, the paper wrote: “Mr. Trump was pressed later in the news conference about his claim that Mr. Obama had never called bereaved families. This time, he seemed to soften his tone.”
The Wall Street Journal’s take (10/16/17) on the real-time fact-checking of the president’s condolence claims was similarly credulous: “Later in Monday’s news conference, when asked about his statement on the former presidents, Mr. Trump appeared to backpedal.” Yes, the Journal wasn’t even willing to report that Trump “backpedaled” without hedging. For its part, Politifact (10/17/17) called Trump’s claims “misleading,” but decided the issue was too fraught with caveats to render an official judgment as to whether they were true or false.
From there, Trump’s phony allegations escalated and his White House staff doubled- then tripled-down, attacking a war widow and a Democratic congress member along with the press itself. As it did, the coverage began to wilt. Evidently afraid to be seen as taking sides in an increasingly public, partisan fight, our neutrality-minded media stopped trying to scrupulously adjudicate facts.
In a Fox News radio interview the next day (10/17/17), Trump claimed that he’d contacted “virtually everybody” who had lost a loved one in the military since taking office. It was a reckless lie, since his own White House military office didn’t have the necessary information to fulfill that task. In fact, only about half of the families had been contacted. We know this because Roll Call (10/20/17) caught the White House dead to rights in an exclusive story. Nevertheless, that same story pulled its punches, right from the headline: “Pentagon Document Contradicts Trump’s Gold Star Claims: Email Undermines Veracity of President’s Statement About Gold Star Contacts.”
This inanimate-object-affects-president construction is no coincidence. It’s a staple of press coverage that wants to dance around White House lying without directly confronting it. (Contrast that with this clear, concise Vanity Fair—10/21/17—headline about the revelation, which zeroes in on those really responsible and their actions: “The White House Panicked After Trump Lied About Calling Soldiers’ Families.”)
After Trump’s bungled condolence call with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson drew outrage from Florida Rep. Federica Wilson, the press’s syntactic contortions multiplied. CNN (10/19/17) got downright creative with its linguistic workarounds in one report:
Trump’s reflexive boast that he was more attentive to the relatives of war dead than his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush set off a cascade of consequences that has left his White House reeling…. The chain of events offers lessons in how a president walks a rhetorical tightropeevery time he speaks and underlines how Trump’s outspoken bluster and relish for confrontation that was so successful on the campaign trail threatens to undermine his hopes for a successful presidency.
Trump laid down a clear marker for the press to check—both on Twitter and to TV reporters at a White House meeting—when he claimed that Wilson’s account of the call was “totally fabricated” and he “had proof.” He did not hedge, and offered no outs for the press to give him the benefit of the doubt under the banner of a misunderstanding or partial error. But when the mother of Sergeant Johnson, who was present for the call, and then Trump’s own proxies corroborated Wilson’s story, the press folded like a cheap suit.
To be fair, the press was partly distracted by White House chief of staff John Kelly’s entrance into the saga. After a credulous, fawning review of his defense of Trump, it turned out he too was pushing false claims against Representative Wilson. From the White House press podium, Kelly recounted a story about her 2015 speech at the opening of a new FBI facility in her district, clearly meant to highlight her supposed penchant for crass self-aggrandizement. But within a day, the Florida Sun-Sentinel (10/21/17) uncovered video evidence that unraveled Kelly’s story completely.
Another crutch corporate media use when they don’t want to weigh in on the truth is the attributed “lie”—as in a CNN story (10/20/17) that ran under the headline: “Rep. Frederica Wilson: Kelly Lied About FBI Ceremony.” It’s telling that the word “lie” is not allowed to stand on its own, as an informed assessment by the reporter or editor.
Soon the lies and the White House’s stubborn denials of them were piling up on top of one another so fast that establishment press coverage took on an almost weary tone. The Washington Post (10/20/17) inflicted this lazy, garbled phrasing on its readers to describe the White House:
The ensuing debate has focused on attacks against Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D) that have proved to be inaccurate but that the White House has refused to back away from, with the latest episode ensnaring Chief of Staff John F. Kelly…. Instead of backing down, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders piled on Friday and said Kelly was justified in accusing the lawmaker of grandstanding, despite erring on the facts.
Similarly, a New York Times news analysis (10/21/17) offered up an embarrassment of riches:
By attacking Ms. Wilson, Mr. Kelly amplified the controversy. And by citing past events that turned out to be false, Mr. Kelly invited news media scrutiny and criticism even from his former military colleagues…. In another White House, a chief of staff might have followed up with an apology of his own, or at least an attempt to correct the record.
The Associated Press (10/21/17) simply chalked Kelly’s claim up to a bad memory: “Video of the speech contradicted his recollection.”
What these stories all failed to do, though, was fully connect the dots between Trump’s and Kelly’s demonstrably false claims, on the one hand, and the White House’s stunning refusal to acknowledge or accept that as reality. When Trump or his White House proxies continue to stand by or repeat claims that facts have proven are simply not true, that establishes an intent to deceive—the very definition of lying—by anyone, president or no.
By the time Myeshia Johnson, Sergeant Johnson’s widow, went public, again confirming Rep. Wilson’s account, the corporate media began treating the storyline much like any other political dispute, worthy of the full panoply of compromised, parsed phrasing. For example, a Washington Post update on the story (10/23/17) was a case study in how the press generously deploys euphemisms to cover for official lying. In it, you’d learn of Trump’s “over-broad boasts” and “inconsistent official accounts,” as well as that “Trump and Kelley disregarded…fidelity to fact.”
The press’s fecklessness rumbled on, as the first charges from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation—two indictments, for Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, and a guilty plea for lying from Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos—came to light on the morning of October 30. That afternoon, Trump White House press secretary Sarah Sanders gave an Orwellian performance for the ages. During her daily press briefing, she made a number of premeditated, demonstrably false statements to the press about the Mueller probe that fit the very definition of a lie.
Brian Stelter, in his daily CNN Reliable Sources newsletter (10/30/17), came the closest to directly calling out what were obvious, intentionally misleading claims as lies:
The Trump administration and its media allies want this to be foggy. When you say “Russia,” they say “Hillary.” Sarah Sanders did it at Monday’s strange press briefing…after reading an old parable about taxes to promote Trump’s tax cut plan…. She said “today’s announcement has nothing to do with the president” (untrue) “nothing to do with the president’s campaign” (untrue) “or campaign activity” (untrue). This part was music to Fox‘s ears: “The real collusion scandal,” she said, “has everything to do with the Clinton campaign, Fusion GPS and Russia.” This “change the subject” dodge has to be called out….
Still, Stelter couldn’t bring himself to say Sanders was lying.
Other news coverage was even more accommodating to Sanders and the White House’s willful dishonesty. Stelter’s colleague at CNN, political analyst Chris Cillizza, ran a column (10/31/17) that characterized her claims as a “massive exaggeration” and a “very bold claim,” before throwing in some false equivalence to conclude that Sanders’ claims were “part and parcel of the political spin all administrations engage in when trying to bury a bad story.”
Others in the mainstream media fell into the maddeningly negligent trap of granting her claims the privilege of running in their headlines unchallenged, further perpetuating her lies to the many readers who will only glance at their coverage.
- New York Times (10/30/17): “White House Says Charges Against Campaign Advisers Do Not Touch Trump”
- NPR (10/30/17): “White House’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders Says Indictments Don’t Prove Collusion With Russia”
- Newsday (10/30/17): “WH Distances Trump from Mueller Indictments”
- USA Today (10/30/17): “After Paul Manafort Indictment, Trump Points Finger at Hillary Clinton”
(USA Today’s online headline has been changed, but as of November 15 this was still the headline that shows up in a Google search.)
Compare this widespread credulity by the corporate media to the headlines among the pro-Trump, right-wing media
- Breitbart (10/30/17): “White House Responds to Robert Mueller Indictments: ‘No Evidence of Trump/Russia Collusion’”
- New York Post (10/30/17): “White House: Arrests in Mueller Probe Have Nothing to Do With Us”
- Fox News Insider (10/30/17): “Sanders: Indictments by Mueller Have Nothing to Do With Trump Campaign”
If your top-level news framing about a White House misinformation campaign is no different than a pro-Trump or white nationalist site’s, it’s safe to say your coverage is not really living up to its duties to thoroughly inform the public. The effect of all this served to divorce the White House’s lies from the contradictory context and disappear inconvenient facts, which is what Fox News unquestionably did in the aftermath of the Mueller news.
The impact from the Mueller indictments soon tripped up Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been a Trump campaign advisor. When NBC News(11/2/17) reported that Papadopoulos had, in fact, told Sessions about his planned trip to Russia during the campaign, he directly refuted earlier, under-oath testimony by Sessions to Congress. Nevertheless, the NBC News reporter hedged his own reporting in a (since deleted) tweet, saying the news “appeared to contradict [Sessions’] previous accounts.”
This, too, was a common reaction. Time and again over the past two weeks, Trump campaign and White House officials have been forced to recant their previous claims or testimony as the truth has come out. And yet these revelations have been routinely downplayed, despite a longstanding pattern of obfuscation and dishonesty.
For example, a New York Times headline (11/2/17) used an awkward construction to avoid calling out the president and his attorney general’s unequivocally false comments: “Trump and Session Denied Knowing About Russian Contacts. Records Suggest Otherwise.” The article itself was no better, saying: “Court documents unsealed this week cast doubt on both statements,” despite the White House offering no evidence to the contrary, instead merely churning out distracting comments about Papadopoulos being a low-level “unpaid volunteer.” On Twitter, fellow Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman chose a different tortured euphemism, saying the just-released documents “strain Trump claim he was unaware of all that was happening.”
This week, as Sessions was called back to Congress to testify once more, this gentle treatment by the press continued. A Washington Post political analysis (11/14/17), which ostensibly has more latitude to make contextualized judgments about the news, ran with a headline that made the attorney general’s flip-flop sound like he merely forgot to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s: “Sessions yet again refines his past statements about communications with Russians.” For its part, the New York Times (11/14/17) generously summed up Sessions’ latest, absurd explanation—that he did not recall being informed of Papadopoulos’ planned trip to Russia, but that he did recall advising against it—as a case of “unsteady recall.”
Most striking, however, was how establishment media flip-flopped in response to Sessions vehemently objecting to Rep. Ted Lieu’s questions at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, which plainly stated that Sessions had either lied to Congress earlier or was lying now in his latest, contradictory testimony. (In an earlier moment at the committee, another House member pointed out that Sessions also failed his own, personal standard for what constituted prosecutable perjury.) Now that another entity—not the press—had leveled the charge of lying against a White House official, countless news organizations, including the New York Times (11/15/17), the Associated Press (11/15/17) and the Wall Street Journal (11/15/17), no longer showed any reluctance to using the word, and instead lead their coverage with Session’s denial of it.
It might be tempting to view this egregious double standard as merely a debate about journalism semantics. One could argue that whether or not a news story reports a president or his attorney general “lied” versus “falsely asserted” or “refined his testimony” are simply distinctions without a difference. But top editors and managers inside the corporate media certainly don’t believe that; why else would they so consistently counsel choosing the latter and avoiding the former in their news reports? It is precisely because words like “lie,” “lying” and “liar” resonate so strongly with the public that newsrooms have developed a separate set of often informal, but nonetheless robust, institutional bans against their usage.
It’s undeniable that the overuse of “lie” and “lying” would be detrimental to both journalism and the truth. But modern newsrooms have instead erred in the other direction, by either consigning these words to the narrative ghetto of partisan quotes, or locking them out of the press’s political coverage altogether. In pursuit of a more bottom-line-friendly pose of neutrality, the corporate media have neutered a critical tool of truth-telling and political accountability.
In the grand scheme, the Trump White House’s lies about his fealty to bereaved military families, awkward lack of empathy on condolence calls, and ax-grinding grudges with a member of Congress may not rise to the level of a genuine threat to the republic. So the press’s refusal to call them such may not seem like a cardinal sin of journalistic candor. But that parade of white lies blossomed from the president’s deafening silence about a tragedy involving one of our country’s many military missions abroad—a tragedy that Trump now seems compelled to respond to by pushing the US even further into another theater of a war on terrorism with no foreseeable end. And as the past few weeks of the Mueller investigation have also shown, a press corps that habitually pulls its punches only makes it easier for those in political power to keep lying when there are greater issues at stake.
Nearly a century before the corporate media obligingly enabled the Bush White House’s propaganda campaign of lies about Iraqi WMDs, early 20th-century German critic and journalist Karl Kraus presciently predicted the damage from just such a failure by the press. He famously wrote: “How is the world ruled and how do wars start?… Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.” If the press can’t tell the public what’s a lie on any given day, how can it be trusted to tell the truth when it really matters?
Reed Richardson is a media critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, AlterNet, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies).