The 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.