clock menu more-arrow no yes

Calling Donald Trump's lies "lies" isn't partisan. It's the truth.

This column from the New York Times's public editor is everything wrong with "objective journalism."

Donald Trump
Sorry! It’s true!

Even after President Obama released his longform birth certificate in 2011, Donald Trump repeatedly questioned its authenticity and insinuated there was a conspiracy (including murder!) to keep the truth of Obama’s foreign birth from the public.

Then in September 2016, Trump finally acknowledged that he did in fact believe Obama was born in the US — and said that he’d dropped the issue after the longform birth certificate came out, even going so far as to falsely blame his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for starting the whole thing.

Trump did something — for years — and then denied he’d done it. Is it fair to call him a liar?

Common sense says this is a pretty open-and-shut question. But New York Times public editor Liz Spayd — the paper’s independent ombudsperson — is really, really resistant to the idea that it’s ever okay to say, in so many words, that a politician “lied.”

Ultimately, she’s okay with it in the case of Trump’s post-birtherist denials — because it was a particularly sustained and particularly racist kind of lie. But she protests that journalists shouldn’t use the word “lie” just because it’s “factually accurate” that a lie has taken place:

That said, I think The Times should use this term rarely. Its power in political warfare has so freighted the word that its mere appearance on news pages, however factually accurate, feels partisan. It feels, as Ryan said, as if you’re playing the referee in frivolous political disputes.

The phrase “however factually accurate” is a record scratch across the middle of the paragraph. It stops me in my tracks every time I read it. And it should! It is deeply, deeply weird for a representative of the New York Times, America’s foremost journalistic institution, to treat factual accuracy as a “to be sure” consideration — the best argument for the losing side of a dispute — rather than the ultimate goal of journalism.

Spayd is trying to keep the Times’s coverage from coming off as partisan. But she’s defining partisan not by “calling things lies that aren’t lies,” but rather “calling things lies too often.” In the service of reinforcing a taboo that she sees as valuable (avoiding a “politically loaded” word), she’s essentially encouraging politicians to lie more — knowing that most of those lies won’t get labeled “lies” at all.

In the few months that Spayd has been public editor, though, she’s often ended up in a position like this: arguing that journalists should avoid doing something not because it’s wrong but because it’s somehow unseemly. It’s understandable. But that doesn’t make it a good thing.

Spayd often seems to be more worried about gentility than truth

The public editor is a weird job. It’s supposed to be a liaison between readers and the paper — Spayd, like past public editors, often quotes reader emails she’s gotten when addressing a particular issue with the Times’s coverage — but it’s also supposed to be an independent auditor of the Times’s journalism. It’s part tribune of the people, part Jiminy Cricket.

That means it’s kind of up to each public editor herself to figure out what issues and values to focus on.

Spayd has only been on the job for a few months — the previous public editor, the widely admired Margaret Sullivan, left earlier this year for the Washington Post — but so far, it looks like she’s often interested in preserving gentility: a desire to turn off the fewest readers — and colleagues at the paper. If you’re being charitable, you could call this legitimacy; if you’re being uncharitable, you could call it inoffensiveness.

Her very first column as a public editor was about the value of reader comments, something that pretty much every journalist in America regards as the lowest form of reader feedback, and with good reason.

To most journalists, it is simply not worthwhile to read through pages of invective from people who didn’t read the article in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. To Spayd, the quality of reader feedback is secondary to the fact that it exists — journalists are obligated not to dismiss anyone who might be reading their stuff.

More recently, Spayd got noticed (in a bad way) for a column about the idea of “false balance” in covering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — in which she ended up defending stories that implied unethical behavior at the Clinton Foundation without identifying any actual instances of it.

Like her problem with “liar,” Spayd’s problem with the “false balance” critique is mostly that it just sounds partisan — and therefore that it could turn people off:

(Defining false balance, Slate editor Jacob) Weisberg used an analogy, saying journalists are accustomed to covering candidates who may be apples and oranges but at least are still both fruits. In Trump, he said, we have not fruit but rancid meat. That sounds like a partisan’s explanation passed off as a factual judgment.

Again, the problem is less that it is wrong than that it is unseemly.

Sometimes Spayd’s concern for gentility shows up in her sensitivity to particular words: The week before she warned Times reporters not to get used to calling politicians “liars,” she chided the Times for putting the word “bitch” in the headline of an opinion piece.

The opinion piece in question was, in part, an argument for women to reclaim the word “bitch” as a term of empowerment. Spayd, however, ruled that until “the mainstream” adopted that use, “bitch” was too insulting — too likely to offend potential readers — to put in the headline. (Spayd’s column on the subject was literally called “The Word a Headline Didn’t Need,” which only reinforced the pearl-clutchy vibe.)

The idea that the New York Times might contribute to what constitutes “mainstream” — that it might have a hand in encouraging such a change — didn’t appear to occur.

News outlets can neuter their own coverage by trying to control their image

It’s definitely a good idea for news outlets to make sure they’re not unnecessarily turning off huge swaths of the American public, but no editor or reporter can completely control how her work is perceived. It’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time.

The New York Times is seen by much of America as a liberal publication. That may not always be accurate, and it might be truer of the Times’s editorial page than its reporting (though most of America doesn’t draw a distinction between the two).

It’s possible that the Times could, with time and effort, change this attitude. But it can’t do that just by avoiding the things Liz Spayd feels will piss people off.

While the upside of the “turn off no one” approach to journalism is minimal, the downside is huge.

The idea that journalists shouldn’t serve as “referees” in “frivolous political disputes” implies that adjudication isn’t a core part of a journalist’s job — that calling out the violation of a norm (be it “not lying to the public,” or “being racist,” or what have you) is something journalists should do only when the stakes are really high, and that the rest of the time, they should be content to describe the game as it played out.

This is what Liz Spayd is worried about: When refs step in, people get mad.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

It’s certainly true that the easiest way not to turn anyone off your journalism is to simply describe the terms of a debate, rather than delineating which side (if either) is correct. But journalists also have a core job function of reporting facts and not confusing or misleading readers.

Taken to its logical end, a journalism of “capturing the conversation” results in the journalism of “Opinions Differ on Color of Sky.” There’s a reason that joke has become a cliché — it was the standard of journalism for many decades, because it was the easiest way to signal to the public that a journalist was being “objective” by not taking a side.

Over the past 15 years or so, it’s become more widely accepted at most journalistic outlets — including the Times — that it is often the journalist’s job to point out when one side is saying things that are wrong. That’s true of big questions like climate change, but it’s also true of “frivolous” day-to-day campaign matters — like the many, many lies of Donald Trump.

To put it another way:

Whatever the conclusions, whatever the effectiveness, of challenging facts, the idea that we have to debate the necessity of doing so strikes me as absurd.

What is the role of the media if not to press for some semblance of reality amid the smoke and mirrors?

That’s from a column written in September 2012 — in the fog of the last election season. It was written by Margaret Sullivan, in her function as public editor of the New York Times.


Donald Trump hates lies, but can't tell the truth

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.