- Accuracy in Media - https://www.aim.org -

Journalists Have Different Rules for Trump When it Comes to the Word ‘Liar’

There’s a growing sense the media does not go hard enough on President Trump.

Polls before the election showed nearly half of Democrats thought the media had gone too easily on Trump. But the movement took off in earnest in August, when Rolling Stone ran a Matt Taibbi piece [1] entitled, “The Media is the Villain – for Creating a World Dumb Enough for Trump,” in which he argued the media rightfully saw Trump as ratings gold and treated him a such.

It continued into March when the Washington Post published a poll [2] that found only 35 percent approve of how the press covers the president and 59 percent disapprove. Somewhere between a fourth and a third of those who disapproved, the Post noted, did so because they thought the coverage was too soft.

On Friday, Slate stated the case in its current form [3] with a piece headlined, “The Big Lie: Controversy over Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine revealed a disconnect about what the media actually does.”

The point of the piece, by Osita Nwanevu, a staff writer, is that mainstream media is unduly reluctant to call President Trump a liar. Her example, and the hook for the piece, was coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s statement on Fox News Wednesday that the president reimbursed his attorney, Michael Cohen, for paying hush money to porn star Stormy Daniels.

“A layperson might now say that the administration has lied about the payment to Stormy Daniels,” she wrote. “The major press will not. ‘Breaking News,’ a tweet from the New York Times on Thursday morning read. ‘President Trump reversed his position on payment to the porn actress Stormy Daniels, confirming that he reimbursed his lawyer for it.” The Times later stated this “directly contradicted” earlier statements by the president.

NPR also chickened out, Nwanevu wrote, writing Trump’s admission “directly contradicts” the initial denials. CNN reported the president is “shifting his story about the Stormy Daniels controversy.”

This got Nwanevu thinking about the remark Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, made after the White House Correspondents Association Dinner: “Just present the facts – let the American people decide who’s lying.

“The journalist shouldn’t be the one to say that the president or that his spokesperson is lying.”

Journalism collectively harrumphed at Schlapp’s suggestion – “Holding those in power accountable is literally the main job of journalists,” a Harper’s Bazaar political editor wrote.

But Nwanevu admitted Schlapp is right. The policy of most journalistic outfits for the last century has been to avoid writing that someone lied but rather to present the contradictory statements and let readers make their own inferences. Among other things, this protects them for libel suits should some other explanation for the contradiction emerge.

The debate among journalists over whether to out and out call someone a liar “has often seemed like a fight over semantics,” Nwanevu wrote.

“It is really a debate by proxy over adversarialism and how journalists should orient themselves in response to power.”

She writes that some in the media tried to nudge this along when Mitt Romney spoke what they considered outright lies against President Obama during the 2012 campaign – that Obama had gone on an apology tour and that he did not believe in capitalism. But it has succeeded in breaking through this glass ceiling – the New York Times has amended its policy in 2016 and allowed President Trump to be called a liar for his claim that Obama was not born in the United States.

Dean Baquet, editor of the Times, argued: “Trumpian dishonesty merited different treatment from obviously wrong and misleading claims made by other politicians about public policy.” Exaggerations put down to “typical political fare” were labeled lies when said by Trump.  

“The implication here is that while journalists at major outlets can readily ascertain whether Trump and his cronies are lying with a bit of effort, they generally can’t ascribe intent to anyone else in politics.”