Home / Culture and Society / Language Matters: Trump and the Times – Calling a Lie a Lie

Language Matters: Trump and the Times – Calling a Lie a Lie

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truth-o-meterThe New York Times‘s public editor, an ombudsman who keeps an eye and reports on the paper’s own editorial practices, yesterday spelled out for readers under what conditions the Times will use the verb “to lie” in its reporting.

Liz Spayd’s piece “When to Call a Lie a Lie” tells us that at the Times the word “lie” is “not used for matters of opinion, but only when the facts are demonstrably clear,” and that the false statement must be made intentionally.

The paper’s political editor further spelled out for Spayd that the term is specifically “not used to police more frivolous disputes among political candidates or political factions.” Which means, I guess, that the Times won’t describe as a lie a statement made in connection with a dispute over an unimportant matter, even if it is, in fact, a lie.

That doesn’t make much sense. If the matter is important enough to report on at all, shouldn’t the same standards apply?

Spayd makes the cogent point that its “power in political warfare has so freighted the word that its mere appearance on news pages, however factually accurate, feels partisan.”

A comment she quotes from a reader bears that out. Wrote the commenter: “There was a time when the front pages of the newspaper printed news. Editorials had their own page. Apparently that tradition has ended with this year’s presidential campaign. Such phrases as ‘Trump gives up a lie’ and ‘refuses to repent’ are opinions; they belong on the editorial page…”

The reader is wrong. The paper reported objective truth. Donald Trump had, in fact, expressly given up his longstanding claim, which he knew to be false, that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Yet Spayd is right: The word is so strong that it feels opinionated, partisan, even when used correctly.

That’s nothing new, though. There has always been great force behind calling something a lie, or someone a liar. That’s precisely why we have so many hedging terms: Spin. Obfuscate. Fib. Stretch the truth. Prevaricate. Mislead.

In her influential book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life Sissela Bok wrote: “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity.” In fact, human ethics have recognized honesty’s importance since ancient times. One of the Ten Commandments is to not bear false witness.

Aristotle wrote that “For the man who loves truth, and is truthful where nothing is at stake, will still more be truthful where something is at stake; he will avoid falsehood as something base, seeing that he avoided it even for its own sake; and such a man is worthy of praise.”

In other words, it’s praiseworthy to be truthful simply for the truth’s sake, even if doesn’t gain you anything. Maybe the Times editors believe they have nothing to gain from calling a petty lie a lie. But they do: an improved reputation for the paper. Would it really lose more readers’ trust by using the “loaded” word everywhere it fits the facts? Those of certain political beliefs already think it’s a partisan paper. Those who respect its journalistic integrity will do so even more if it begins to include among “all the news that’s fit to print” calling out lies told to the American people by those who aspire to lead them.


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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    The editors ought to give each candidate column space to expound upon contradictory statements or positions. In this way, candidates can explain the contexts in which the various statements have been made.

    Another dimension is the evidence (or lack thereof) which supports the various statements made. When in office, the prospective candidate for the presidency will make judgments based upon input from many disparate sources. What is needed is a set of questions which will elicit responses as to how each candidate would decide a crucial issue based upon the same or similar facts or circumstances.

    Candidates should explain rule structures which govern their reasoning on crucial issues. i.e. What are the most important considerations v. the least important ones.

    For instance, right now there is a raging debate over “stop and frisk”. The objective of this or any policy implementation on this topic is a reduction in crime. Unreasonable search is a constitutional protection which may rank higher than the need to “stop and frisk”. And so, now there is a conflict over constitutional hierarchical principles and protections. The next step in logical thinking brings us to whether or not there are viable alternatives or better alternatives.

    When you consider viable alternatives to “stop and frisk”, the program of “community policing” actively involves the stakeholders, such that, ” stop and frisk” may not be needed in the ultimate scheme of things. And so, the downside to “stop and frisk” may be avoided with more rigorous community policing.