by Ashley Austrew
Politicians aren’t exactly known for being honest. President Nixon had the Watergate scandal. President Bill Clinton lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And, in the first two years Donald Trump was president, the Washington Post reported he’s made over 8,000 “false or misleading claims” to the American public.
Still, it is rare to see a headline declaring any president or politician a liar. Why is that?
First of all, what does it mean to lie?
The noun and verb lie are both recorded in Old English by the 900s. To lie is “to speak falsely or utter truth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.” More generally, to lie is “to express what is false, convey a false impression.”
So, when a person lies, they aren’t just sharing false information, they’re doing it with the sinister intent of getting others to believe misleading information. If someone does this habitually, then we would call them a liar, “a person who tells lies.” This word is also attested to in the 900s.
Why don’t journalists use the word liar?
The main reason why many journalists avoid accusations of lying is because it is difficult to determine one key word in that definition above: intent.
If a lie is “a false statement that is made with deliberate intent to deceive,” then calling someone a liar means you know they are intentionally trying to mislead people. While many of us make that assumption about politicians, it’s different when you’re a member of the media tasked with reporting the news—not your own conclusions about it.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University and a contributing editor at Politico, wrote in 2017 that the media declaring the president a liar would cross a serious line. That’s not to say that it should never be done.
Prior to the Watergate scandal, as Greenberg observed, a National Press Club report found Nixon guilty of “an unprecedented, government-wide effort to control, restrict and conceal information” and “discredit the press.” Still, it wasn’t until the Watergate story broke and investigations proved Nixon’s intent that the media declared the president a liar. If the media wants to retain their credibility, Greenberg argued, they are right to hold back from declaring President Trump, or anyone else, a liar. “Though it may seem fainthearted to use words like ‘falsehood’ and ‘untruth,’ in the long run the press will have more influence if it avoids insinuating more than it can confidently assert to be true,” he wrote.
Should journalists use liar anyways?
On January 21, 2019, the Washington Post reported that, in the first two years of his presidency alone, Trump made 8,158 false claims about the economy, immigration, trade, foreign policy, and other matters.
In just one instance in March 2019, Trump wrongly identified Patrick Moore, a man with early involvement in Greenpeace, as a cofounder of the organization in a tweet about him calling climate change “fake news.” Greenpeace was quick to correct Trump on the fact that Moore was not a cofounder, but that didn’t change the fact that many people were exposed to the tweet and may have accepted the president’s words as true.
Patrick Moore was not a co-founder of Greenpeace. He does not represent Greenpeace. He is a paid lobbyist, not an independent source. His statements about @AOC & the #GreenNewDeal have nothing to do with our positions.
— Greenpeace USA (@greenpeaceusa) March 12, 2019
Since the 2016 US presidential election, people have grown increasingly frustrated with the media’s treatment of public figures who lie, with many concerned that we live in a post-truth society where facts have become irrelevant.
And, it’s not only Trump. That election brought us the Hillary Clinton email scandal, during which Clinton said she “never received nor sent any material that was marked classified” on her private email server as Secretary of State—a claim that Politifact characterized as false.
During the 2016 presidential election, Politifact also found that 84 percent of claims Ben Carson, now Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, made since 2007 were false, including his assertion that there are a “multitude” of unnecessary vaccines available to the public. Texas Senator Ted Cruz told lies about 66 percent of the time in that time frame, including that “the federal government is going after school districts, trying to force them to let boys shower with little girls.”
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction even more, Trump has popularized the term fake news—not to call out actual fake news but to discredit anyone or anything perceived as unflattering to him. That strategy has been incredibly effective, and he has succeeded in creating an environment in which the truth is difficult to discern.
Drawing the liar line
Many argue that the media simply can’t tolerate this level of misinformation anymore. Even journalists are starting to call one another out.
To call Trump a liar, we journalists don't have to figure out if he truly does or doesn't believe whatever nonsense he tweeted today (13 Angry Democrats, etc).
He openly, proudly built his business and presidency with lies. He says so. He is a liar.
Call his lies lies.
— Adam Davidson (@adamdavidson) May 29, 2018
In January, Esquire published an op-ed by journalist Dan Sinker called “In 2019, The Media Has to Do Better in Calling Out Trump’s Sh*t [edited].” Sinker noted that journalists don’t use words like lie and liar because they’re supposed to maintain a level of objectivity. Nonetheless, he added:
Of course, being objective doesn’t mean letting liars lie. “Balance” isn’t setting two pundits up to argue over what everyone knows is a false statement. There’s no bias in saying something is patently untrue if it is, in fact, patently untrue. In fact, saying things aren’t true from jump is kinda the most important part of the job.
Some major news organizations have indeed been using the word liar in content. In August 2018, The New Yorker ran the headline “It’s True: Trump Is Lying More & He’s Doing It On Purpose.” In October, CNN published “Donald Trump Lies And He’s Doing A Lot More of It Lately.” The Atlantic joined the call-out in November 2018 with a piece simply titled: “The President’s Lies.”
In the era of fake news, publications have to contend with the fact that any escalation on their part (i.e., calling someone a liar), also comes with an escalation in the intense scrutiny the media is already facing. The media has the unique ability to speak truth to power, and that includes calling out politicians and not allowing them to get away with lies.
There may be disagreement on where the liar line should be, but that doesn’t change the fact that we need to draw one—even if intent is tricky to determine.
Ashley Austrew is a freelance writer from Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has been published at Cosmopolitan, Scary Mommy, Scholastic, and other outlets.
For more by Ashley, read: “Why Can’t Women Swear?” | “Is It Time For All Couples To Use The Term “Partner”? | “Is “Crude” The Right Word To Use To Describe Someone’s Language?” | “What Does It Mean To Be Electable?” | “Has The Word ‘Expert’ Lost Its Meaning In 2019?” | “How Does Adding The Word ‘Possible’ Change News?” | “Does ‘Spark Joy’ Mean The Same Thing In English And Japanese?” | Is There A Difference Between “Calling In” And “Calling Out”?