Why refusing to call Trump a liar will haunt the New York Times
At a recent Wisconsin rally, Donald Trump plunged to new depths with regard to a woman's right to choose. Regaling his loyal supporters with a gruesome, fictional account of what happens in a delivery room, Trump insisted that doctors and mothers often conspire to "execute" healthy newborns. Beyond shocking, Trump's grisly lie represented his latest mental leap into a world of fantastic violence. Yet in covering the rally and the ghastly infanticide claim, the New York Times could only summon enough courage to call Trump's hideous declaration "a standard, and inaccurate, refrain."
Let's be clear: "An inaccurate refrain" is where you end up as a newsroom when you've spent two years trying not to type the words "lie" and "liar" when covering Trump. (This, as Trump's presidency officially becomes the Land of 10,000 Lies.) For a newsroom, "an inaccurate refrain" represents a silly, surreal, and absurdist place to be, and it ought to haunt the Times for years to come.
Dancing around the L-words represents a crucial judgment call that the press made very early on in the Trump presidency, and it has defined much of the coverage ever since. Journalists quickly realized that the new president lies about everything, starting right away with the size of his inauguration crowd. But most journalists made a tactical decision to play dumb and to water down the language it used when describing Trump's nonstop prevarications. So instead of simple truth-telling, which is what good journalism is all about, we've been bombarded with a new brand of Beltway-speak that goes out of its way to deliver an utterly convoluted version of events for the last two years. Whether concerned about losing access to the Trump White House or about being hit with claims of "liberal media bias," the Times has led the press charge to play dumb.
It’s one of the most consequential decisions news organizations such as the Times have made in recent years. And it is, hands down, one of the strangest hills for any newsroom to die on. Why would it matter if Trump gets called a liar openly and without pause by the press? Because it signals to everyone that this country faces a national crisis. It wipes away any doubt regarding Trump's dangerous and radical nature. It would rip away the false veneer of normalcy that news outlets seem so desperate to maintain in the Trump era.
I understand that the Times didn't invent this Trump-era journalism problem of allergic reaction to "lies" and "liars." Lots of outlets play the game. But there's no question that the Times sent an important signal to the rest of the journalism community. The hugely influential paper seems to cling to the idea that, because it can't read Trump's mind, it can't tell if he is lying or just confused and misinformed, and therefore the newsroom isn't comfortable calling him a liar. The Times decided it was official paper policy to pretend it simply couldn't figure out what was going on.
In its more than 150 years of publishing, I genuinely doubt the Times has ever tried this hard not to be honest with its readers. Indeed, what's so amazing is how hard Timesmen and women work not to be clear regarding Trump, and all the thesauruses staffers have burned through in order to avoid using the L-word, which leads to train wrecks like Sunday's "inaccurate refrain" tweet regarding murderous claims about newborns.
By the way, I know that technically the Times’ newsroom has, from time to time, referred to Trump as a liar and his White House as being awash in lies. But overall, the daily has been extraordinarily reticent to simply tell the truth about a president who's clearly a pathological liar, who tells falsehoods about every conceivable topic, and who doesn't care if he's debunked or fact-checked.
When White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lied her way through a CNN interview about Trump's history of hush money payments, the Times announced that she had merely "made false and misleading statements." When Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to the Associated Press and lied about a litany of topics, the Times suggested that he'd "made inaccurate statements." When Trump unfurled numerous lies during a Rose Garden event, the Times reported that he had told "richly embellished" stories. And when he spread lies about the "criminal deep state" out to get him, the daily reported that he was advancing "unproven theories."
Just last month, the paper touted what I'm sure it thought was a critical look at Trump's incessant prevarications about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Except instead of detailing how Trump lies about the deadly topic relentlessly, the Times pretended he was just confused — that he had "trouble keeping his facts straight about 9/11."
Back in February, Trump told a gargantuan lie when he claimed that 72 percent of arrested undocumented immigrants don't show up for mandatory court appearances. The actual figure is 2 percent. The Times politely labeled that a "false statement." When he declared a bogus border national emergency, which he supported with a mountain of lies, the Times patiently detailed the "misleading" statements that "were not rooted in facts." Gee, what's another word for false and misleading claims that are deliberately told over and over and over?
Do you see the bizarre dichotomy? News outlets such as the Times have wisely dedicated staffers to detail Trump's lies, which get written up in sidebars. Yet those same writers are not allowed to use the L-word to describe what they find. Instead, when Trump tells ghoulish lies about mothers and doctors executing babies, the paper limply opts for "an inaccurate refrain."
History is not going to look kindly on the paper's abdication during the Trump era. And that’s why refusing to be honest, and not calling him a liar every day, will haunt the Times.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.