Being able to call a lie a lie shouldn’t be as attention grabbing as is the New York Times’ recent decision to do so in its reporting on Donald Trump, but that’s what you get in a media landscape still largely wedded to a model where the fact that a politician makes a statement takes precedence over whether that statement is rooted in fact.
NYT editor executive editor Dean Baquet spoke to NPR’s Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition today about the finer points of how the Times determines intentional attempts to mislead.
Inskeep’s first question: “Has something changed in the way you cover and write about Donald Trump?
Baquet responded with an immediate yes. For him, Trump “crossed a little bit of a line” even in a world of politicians who “often exaggerate their records, obfuscate, say they did something great when it wasn’t so great.”
The line was birtherism, “where he has repeated for years his belief that President Obama was not born in the United States. That’s not an obfuscation, that’s not an exaggeration. I think that was just demonstrably a lie, and I think that lie is not a word that newspapers use comfortably.”
Baquet is also asked about the choice to use lie specifically, instead of going for other options like the word false. “When you say lie, you are suggesting you know the person intentionally told an untruth, you feel you know their mind.”
“I think that was the case with birther,” says Baquet. “I think to say that that was a falsehood wouldn’t have captured the duration of his claim, 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 usual political fare, where politicians say, ‘My tax plan will save a billion dollars,’ but it’s actually a half a billion and they’re using the wrong analysis. This was something else. And I think we owed it to our readers to just call it out for what it was.”
“NPR at the moment has come up with a slightly different formulation and the senior vice president of news wrote we should give ‘citizens the information they need to make the choices that democracy asks them to make. We should not be telling you how to think. We should give you the information to decide what you think.’
Do you think you’re following that same standard when you call Trump a liar?” asks Inskeep.
“I think I’m using the same standard, I’m just using a different word,” says Baquet, going on to qualify exactly what he mean by “different.” “I think I’m using a more accurate word.”