The Perils of Calling Trump a Liar
When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man. Early in his first term he had declared war on them—famously in two high-profile speeches delivered by his pit-bull vice president, Spiro T. Agnew—and he spied on many with illegal wiretaps authorized by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. When reporters crossed him, he punished them with petty retributions (excluding some from his trip to China) and unconstitutional abuses of power (siccing the IRS or FBI on others) that became grounds for his impeachment.
Well before Watergate, Nixon’s treatment of reporters led them to thunder that because of his distortions and manipulations, freedom of the press was under siege. The news media’s leading lights sounded the alarm. Accepting the “Broadcaster of the Year” award in 1971, Walter Cronkite labeled Nixon’s anti-press campaign “a grand conspiracy.” On the Dick Cavett show, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee charged that “the First Amendment is in greater danger than any time I’ve seen it.” A blue-ribbon National Press Club report found Nixon guilty of “an unprecedented, government-wide effort to control, restrict and conceal information” and “discredit the press.” The Senate even convened hearings—chaired by Sam Ervin, Democrat of North Carolina, who later led the Watergate inquiry—into whether, as Ervin put it, “the Constitution’s guarantee of a free press” was “on its deathbed.”
Notably, though, it wasn’t until the Watergate investigations proved that Nixon had deliberately uttered his falsehoods with the intent to deceive the public that journalists rolled out the heaviest rhetorical artillery available to them: Calling the president a liar.
Several reasons accounted for this circumspection. A lie isn’t simply any old falsehood; it’s told with the knowledge that it’s false and with the intent to deceive. In most cases, journalists couldn’t prove that Nixon was knowingly misleading them, and as workaday reporters they didn’t want to seem biased—especially with the administration officials and surrogates clamoring about their alleged liberal bias in order to discredit them. Then, too, there was a certain respect for the office of the presidency. “When it’s Richard Nixon,” explained Clark Mollenhoff of the Des Moines Register, who had worked briefly in the Nixon White House, “you restrain yourself and do not call him a liar.”
Over time, however, the daily contradictions between what Nixon said and what journalists were discovering grew stark. The discrepancies, noted Bradlee and his Post colleague Howard Simons, “forced the reader and the listener to choose between the White House and the press.” By the end, even Nixon defenders in the press were using the l-word. “He lied to the people. … He lied to his lawyers. He lied to the press,” sighed the conservative columnist James J. Kilpatrick the day after Nixon resigned, in August 1974. “My president is a liar.” Eventually even the most diehard Nixon loyalists agreed. “Lies,” noted Chuck Colson, Nixon’s chief thug, “brought Nixon down.”
The barrage of false, duplicitous, dishonest and misleading statements emanating from Donald Trump and the White House in the last week has again raised the question of whether and when it’s OK for a mainstream news organization—one that aspires to objectivity and non-partisanship in its news coverage—to say flatly that the president is lying. This is far from a new challenge with Trump; his cavalier disregard for the truth was an abiding preoccupation of journalists throughout the campaign. Scores of news outlets, including this one, devoted op-ed columns, media criticism, fact-checking features and listicles to cataloguing and debunking Trump’s fire-hose spray of false statements.
But what was mildly controversial during the campaign has become considerably more fraught now that Trump is president. After his press secretary’s brazenly false assertions last week about turnout at the inauguration and Trump’s own repetition of the spurious claim that millions of Americans voted illegally in the election, journalists have begun to wonder—quite legitimately—whether the next four years are going feed them not just a steady diet of the usual White House spin but an exceptionally toxic brew of misinformation, propaganda, bullshit and lies. And it’s not entirely clear how to respond.
Some want the objective press to repeatedly call out Trump for lying—using the word whenever possible. As they see it, such imprecations could inform the public about the president’s incessant mendacity or at least provide a morally clear and refreshingly blunt description of his modus operandi. Many news editors, however, fear that using the l-word will mean overreaching and speculating about Trump’s intent. Besides, it will be sure to give rise to charges of bias, name-calling and unprofessionalism. On this one, these editors are right. Though it may seem fainthearted to use word 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.