In the age of Trump there’s no question that a free, responsible, and autonomous press is indispensable, and that American citizens have a duty to support the press in a myriad of ways. Nonetheless, the times also call on citizens to hold the press as accountable as politicians themselves, especially whenever the former fails to do its job. What might this failure look like?
One of the press’s glaring failures became obvious to me on the January 25, 2017 broadcast of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, particularly in a short segment titled, “NPR and the Word, ‘Liar:’ Intent is the Key.” In the segment, the NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly and Senior Vice-President for News, Michael Oreskes, employed a host of verbal and philosophical contortions to explain why they would not say, in a story about Donald Trump, that he had lied when he asserted that the audience at his inauguration was much bigger than that at Barack Obama’s in 2009.
The first thing we need to understand about this story is that it involved a clever sleight-of-hand that enabled NPR to make a conflation for the sake of its own defense. On the one hand, Mary Louise Kelly and Michael Oreskes were allegedly defending the NPR decision not to call Donald Trump a “liar” based on the falsehoods he had made. This is implicit in the story’s title. On the other hand, the story itself is mostly about what constitutes a “lie,” and why Donald Trump should not be described as having told one. As I noted in a comment I sent to NPR, it may seem like a subtle distinction, but saying that Donald Trump told a lie and saying that Donald Trump is a liar are two different things. With the former, one is simply stating an action that took place. With the latter, one is labeling someone in such a way that it may generalize (and therefore distort) who that person may be. Trump indeed may be a serial liar, but it is easy to see how this label might be construed as conjecture or editorializing, especially within the context of a national broadcast. But to report that Trump lied is stating a simple fact; there can be no doubt that he had said it in order to deceive the American people about what actually happened in Washington, D.C. on January 20.
In defending the NPR decision to not say that Donald Trump lied, Mary Louise Kelly made this claim: “Intent being the key word there—without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares – or doesn’t – with fact. . .”
Kelly’s defense is disturbing on several levels. First, her claim defies simple logic, which is a process of thinking that we must use to understand our world. If Donald Trump simply misstated a fact or two, perhaps we might question his intent. But it is patently clear from the arc of his entire adult life that he has willfully and purposely deceived others on countless occasions. Among other responsibilities, it is a journalist’s job to establish proper context in order to make sense of what happened. Basic logic required Kelly to place Trump’s inauguration claim within the context of the President’s broader record, which is all too rife with frequent and indefensible lies. This she failed to do.
Second, if we were to follow Kelly’s line of thought we would not be able to conclude, and state as fact, that Adolf Hitler intended to kill millions of Jews and others in the Shoah. We can’t get into Hitler’s head, after all—no more now than 75 years ago. If Kelly had it her way, no journalist could state as a fact that Hitler committed crimes against humanity, including genocide; we would have to call this “an opinion” about Hitler. Such misguided thinking would also require that we release from prison almost everyone convicted of first-degree murder because such a crime requires pre-meditation, also known as “intent.” And since we can’t peer into any killer’s head (how would that work anyway—detecting a firing synapse before or while the crime was committed?), we would be unable to know whether the suspect intended to murder the victim unless the former confessed to the crime. On the face of it, not only is this line of argument absurd; it speaks in direct opposition to what human beings must do to make sense of the world, which is employ sound logic.
The excuse for not declaring that Trump lied is nothing less than cowardice on the part of the press. Even worse, it is a dereliction of duty that members of the “fourth estate” have in a democracy.
Kelly’s absurd defense was followed by an equally bamboozling statement from Michael Oreskes: “Our job as journalists is to report—to find facts, establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. And I think that when you use words like lie, it gets in the way of that.” Apparently the argument that Oreskes was making is that the term, “lie,” is such a shocking word that using it would serve to divert attention from the rest of the story.
But what eludes Oreskes here is that there is a perfectly good reason why the term is shocking to many: lying is a deeply reprehensible thing to do, and it deserves to be recognized as such by everyone in this country. Telling the truth, after all, girds all aspects of civic life—from marriage to commercial transactions to legal processes. This is why, for example, perjury is such a serious offense in most societies. In other words, a “lie” should capture our attention in ways that terms like “falsehood” and “inaccuracy” cannot: all the more so when the President of the United States is doing it brazenly and on a consistent basis.
In the end, it comes down to a simple choice that the press has a responsibility to make: it must acknowledge that either Trump is willfully being deceptive with many of his statements, and therefore lies constantly, or he really believes what he is saying, in which case he is either delusional or severely intellectually deficient. But somehow I don’t see the mainstream press making such a choice, hence its cowardice and dereliction.
By failing to choose from these possibilities, the press is neither reporting the facts nor doing what reasonable humans beings do all the time: make certain conclusions on the basis of a body of evidence. Sadly, it is only obfuscating what’s going on with Trump and thereby contributing to the ignorance of the American citizenry. Small wonder that many believe our democracy is hanging by a thread.
A free and responsible press is indeed a cornerstone to democracy—but only when it does its job of telling the truth to the American people. Refusing to report that Trump lied is, in and of itself, a lie. The press should therefore be something that Trump never can be: ashamed of itself.