Strait-laced legacy media companies, wedded to balance and objectivity, have never been good at calling a lie what it is. But now the New York Times is starting to point out lies in their news coverage of Donald Trump.As Quartz flagged on Tuesday, at least five stories in the Grey Lady's Sept. 17 edition, including its lead print story, contained the words "lie," "false" and "untrue" in headlines, first paragraphs and top sections in stories about the GOP nominee.
Major news outlets have long struggled with use of the word "lie," especially during a political campaign season. A candidate for public office can say something that's obviously untrue, and there may be ample evidence that he or she knows it's untrue, and simply hopes to deceive the public. Journalists, however, are nevertheless reluctant to use the "l" word.Just last week, Michael Oreskes, NPR's editorial director, wrote a piece reflecting on Donald Trump making claims that were flagrantly false, making the case that use of the word "lie" presents the news in an "angry tone" that alienates the public.The problem, of course, is the incentive structure: if politicians know in advance that news organizations will be cautious in calling out egregious deceptions, they may feel less pressure to tell the truth. The more media professionals are aggressive in holding candidates and officeholders accountable, the less they'll try to get away with dishonesty.TPM noted the other day how the New York Times is starting to adapt to politics in the age of Trump.
The Times' executive editor, Dean Baquet, added that Trump was "outright lying" about the birther issue, and the newspaper will use the word "lie" when it's "warranted."Of course, with the Republican presidential hopeful, the challenge isn't identifying the lies, it's keeping up with the avalanche of lies.Longtime readers may recall a project I oversaw four years ago called "Mitt Mendacity." For newer readers, the point was pretty straightforward: once a week, I'd highlight every instance of Mitt Romney saying something blatantly untrue in speeches, interviews, op-eds, etc. I tackled the endeavor because, it seemed to me at the time, that the 2012 GOP candidate was being spectacularly dishonest in ways I found genuinely alarming.Four years later, a variety of readers have asked me why I haven't rolled out a similar effort for Trump. My answer is always the same: "You've got to be kidding me."Donald Trump makes Mitt Romney look like the Patron Saint of Honesty. If lying were an Olympic sport, every other contender would have to quit, knowing in advance that Trump would win the gold no matter how hard they tried.Trump lies with such reckless abandon -- about himself, about his opponent, about policy, about current events, about details large and small -- it's not unreasonable to wonder whether he has some kind of allergy to the truth.Correct the Record, a Democratic super PAC, created a "Trump Lies" website, which sends out occasional summaries to reporters, and I think it's a safe bet the outfit has a small army of researchers who work a lot of hours hoping to keep pace with the Republican's borderline uncontrollable dishonesty.And even they miss some.Midday yesterday, Daniel Dale, who does fine reporting for the Toronto Star, highlighted 18 blatantly false things Trump said just since the morning. (It wasn't the first such list Dale pulled together recently.) We're not even talking about judgment calls or attempts at slicing the truth very thin; Dale simply flagged brazen falsehoods.And Dale isn't the only one who's noticed. During the Republican presidential primaries, the most common complaint from Trump's rivals is that the guy just lied far too often. Ted Cruz called Trump a "pathological liar." Marco Rubio called Trump a "liar." Jeb Bush also called Trump a "liar."The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler explained in May, "Trump makes Four-Pinocchio statements over and over again, even though fact checkers have demonstrated them to be false. He appears to care little about the facts."Even NBC's Tom Brokaw, hardly a political attack dog, has said, "[I]n the course of the campaign, [Trump has] said some things that were just blatantly not true. He's never been held accountable for it."That lack of accountability matters. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found that a plurality of Americans believe Trump is honest compared to Hillary Clinton -- which, no matter what one might think of Clinton, is plainly ridiculous.What should be one of the most important issues of the 2016 presidential campaign -- Donald Trump's inability to tell the truth about practically any issue -- is a dynamic that much of the country doesn't even recognize.There's still time for that to change.