There's a growing number of media calling out President Donald Trump for saying things that aren't true. But does that make him a liar?

The word “lie” keeps appearing in news stories and columns about President Donald Trump. It makes me extremely uncomfortable.

Usually restrained media outlets are using the word casually in a way which doesn’t do justice to the implication of calling someone a “liar”.

To ‘lie’ is not simply saying something that is not true. A ‘liar’ is a person who sets out deliberately to mislead.

The key to a lie is intent.

A lie is something expressed as fact when it is not fact and it is expressed as fact with a specific intent and for a specific purpose.

And yet, the word “lie” gets included in news stories - and attributed to Trump’s statements - without any reporting that shows what intent might sit behind it. Intent is the key word and if you’re calling someone a liar then you have to show the intent.

New York Times' executive editor Dean Baquet said in a radio interview that the distinction between “baseless” - as in, not having a foundation in fact - and lie “perplexes our readers because people want very simple resolutions to complicated issues of language”.

Yet the New York Times has started using the word. It did so in reference to Trump disavowing the “birther lie”, as they called it in a headline. Baquet said it was different because Trump had invested credibility and years of effort making the claim Barack Obama was born outside the US even though clear evidence showed it was untrue.

It also did when Trump’s claimed he had won the popular vote.

The decision to use the word “lie” adds to hyperbole. It becomes shrill and in raising the impact it also increases the public’s ability to tolerate the “lie” as the accusation becomes a confrontation.

Senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes at NPR - which has avoided the word “lie” - said:

"Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody. It's really important that people understand that these aren't our opinions. ... These are things we've established through our journalism, through our reporting ... and I think the minute you start branding things with a word like 'lie,' you push people away from you."

Veteran journalist Dan Rather says call it out. “A lie, is a lie, is a lie,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Journalism, as I was taught it, is a process of getting as close to some valid version of the truth as is humanly possible.”

Not calling Trump’s wrong statements “lies” is “hiding behind semantics and euphemisms”.

“Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting. When something is, in fact, a demonstrable lie, it is our responsibility to say so.”

Rather’s view doesn’t excuse the use of the word “lie”. It points to where we need to get to.

We don’t know why Trump says the things he does.

As I’ve said, there’s been little reporting which actually shows those reasons. We don’t know why he made statements about thousands of Muslim people cheering the attack on the Twin Towers (not accurate) or widespread voter fraud (contrary to evidence) or inauguration crowd size (contrary to what anyone looking could see).

We can imagine why he might have said these things.

But we don’t know. Was there intent? Was it a conscious decision to choose a false path, knowing it was false, and pursuing it for a reason?

What is the reason? Why has he chosen to pursue a path which is contrary to fact and probably so?

Trump doesn’t have a good record. PolitiFact has been fact-checking Trumps statements and currently has the President uttering falsehoods in 68 per cent of cases. He has made statements which are rated “true” on just 4 per cent of occasions.

Trump called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth”. He also called media “the opposition party”.

Calling a falsehood out as a “lie” buys into this confrontation.

It supplants the judgment of readers, listeners or viewers. It gets there before they do with the accusation of intent.

Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler said it best in his memo to staff about covering Trump. He write of how its journalists faced opposition from leaders in many countries in the world. It was responded to “by doing our best to protect our journalists, by recommitting ourselves to reporting fairly and honestly, by doggedly gathering hard-to-get information – and by remaining impartial’.

The problem with “intent” is that Trump might not have one. We don’t know. He could simply be mad. There are Republican senators who have raised concerns about his mental health.

He might not be mad. There might not be a coherent belief which lasts from one statement to the next. That’s not a “lie”. He might be chaos.

There is so much judgment implied in the word “lie”. News reporting should rarely judge. When it does so, the public deserves proof.

Comments (20)

by Katharine Moody on February 21, 2017
Katharine Moody

Yes, facts v platitudes, and unfortunately platitudfs seem to be more rewarded by the system/society these days. Respectable journos are forced to follow the Mike Hosking approach. Journos ought not be made into stars, just as reality TV personalities ought not be made into statesmen. And the media is responsible for raising both of these individuals beyond their station.

by Katharine Moody on February 21, 2017
Katharine Moody

Or, in other words, the media has been quick to blame the Democrats for Trump - whereas I blame the media :-). Reality TV has never been a good idea - it does nothing to mind mind for society at large.

by barry on February 21, 2017

Intention is always hard to prove, even in a court of law, where it really does make a difference.

However if someone incorrectly says something and has it pointed out that it is wrong they have a chance to correct the error, or at least stop repeating it.  When they continue to say things that have been shown to be untrue then they are clearly lying.

The only other alternative is some form of mental illness or stupidity.  Which in an elected leader may well be worse than mendacity.

by Katharine Moody on February 21, 2017
Katharine Moody

"When they continue to say things that have been shown to be untrue then they are clearly lying."

or deluded - which I think is often the case where Trump is concerned. The expressions are 'believing in your own propaganda' and/or 'living in a echo chamber'. John Key might well have exhibited it too, or as you say, perhaps he was just lying.

by Neal on February 21, 2017

"A ‘liar’ is a person who sets out deliberately to mislead." But every definition I've looked at online including Miriam Webster and Oxford state that a liar is a teller of lies. 

So the premise of your article seems based on a false assertion of the definition of liar as someone who lies with intent. 

by Roger Brooking on February 21, 2017
Roger Brooking

If almost nothing he says is true, then he's almost nothing but a liar. Simple.

by Roger Brooking on February 21, 2017
Roger Brooking

British comedian, John Oliver, The Last Week Tonight host says: “sifting through Trump’s brain to see why he said something is now like examining a shark’s stomach to see what it ate.”

by Roger Brooking on February 21, 2017
Roger Brooking

Trump is more than a liar. Last week, John Oliver called Trump a “pathological liar” in a scalding episode which marked the start of the show’s fourth season. “We have a president capable of standing in the rain and saying it was a sunny day.”   

by Katharine Moody on February 21, 2017
Katharine Moody

John Oliver - but of course!!! Another star who we need to pay homage to. But, whether he is more or less credible than Alec Baldwin, Goldie Hawn, Clint Eastwood, Oprah, or Kayne West is the real social dilemma of the day. So many stars to choose from in seeking truth.

Personally, I'm more a fan of Glenn Greenwald - although I realise he's yet to get his own show, and of course neither has he ever won an Oscar... so yeah, perhaps I ought to discount him altogether.

by Dennis Horne on February 21, 2017
Dennis Horne

Everybody lies. Maybe the dichotomy liar/not liar matters to a journalist Being wrong is a real problem. In Trump's case there are other problems. Trump’s fragile male ego craves the dangerous drug of adulation.  Joan Smith. (Photo. Donald Trump hugs Gene Huber at a ‘Make America Great Again’ rally.)

Therapy has never been so expensive. At the weekend, it cost American taxpayers millions of dollars to fly Donald Trump down to Florida so he could hold a session with thousands of adoring fans after another trying week in the White House. At a cost of roughly $3m per trip, it would have been cheaper to hire Dr Freud but, sadly, aides who tried to contact him discovered he has been dead since 1939.

Instead, the 45th president of the US invited on stage a man who later revealed he has a 6ft cardboard model of his hero and talks to it every day.

Let’s just pause and think about that. This is a leader whose ego is so fragile, he wants to appear on stage with someone most of us would change seats to avoid if he sat next to us on a train. (continues)

by Rosemary McQueen on February 22, 2017
Rosemary McQueen

All lies are falsehoods but not all falsehoods are lies. The difference is not so much "intention" as you claim, but knowledge. A lie is a (false) claim that the utterer knows to be false.  Trump lied about Obama's birth, not because of his intention to deceive (which no doubt he had) but because he continued to assert the claim after its falsehood was demonstrated to him and us all by the production of his brirh certificate, a primary source.

by Ross on February 22, 2017

News reporting should rarely judge.

Alas, here in NZ journalists frequently judge. John Armstrong and the Herald implied that David Cunliffe had lied over a letter he wrote on behalf of a constituent. Armstrong's columns should have had a disclaimer: "This has been a party political broadcast on behalf of the National Party".

As for Trump being a liar, it's irrelevant. It's a bit like asking whether Harold Shipman was the worst ever serial killer. Does it actually matter?

by Fentex on February 23, 2017

A good rule of thumb is if it's been said once and repudiated, repeating it must be a lie.

But that's not neccessary - Trumps disregard for establishing facts before commenting suffices. Such callous disregard, in a positon of responsibility, for ascertaining truth before expressing self serving statements is lying.

Being uncertain and uncommitted is not, being certain in self service is.

by Fentex on February 23, 2017

News reporting should rarely judge.

I think providing context through opinion and discussion is an important part of reporting - but it must trail provision of facts.

1) Report facts.

2) Place facts in context.

3) Profer an opinion.

by Andrew P Nichols on February 23, 2017
Andrew P Nichols

The thing I find extraordinary about this hooha over fake news lies whatever is that the media are trying to present this as something new. It is not. It's been aan accaepoted part of POTUS announcem,emts for decades and the media just reported it all faithfully without comment wheteher it was

Gulf of Tonkin incident

Threats to students on Grenada

Aluminium tubes from Niger

Kuwaiti babies tossed from incubators

WMD in Iraq

Imminent genocide in Benghazi

Ghaddafi troops using Viagra in raping women

Iranian nuclear weapons

Syrian Chem attack in Ghouta

Russians about to invade the Baltics

Russians interfering in elections

Russians yaddyadda

So what makes Trumps BS any worse than all this prior BS? 

Why have the media now called it out?

Will they call out future POTUS with such ferocity or will they return to being the pathetic Imperial mouthpiece once he's replaced?

I think we know tha answer. Trumps gone off the Imperial script and this cant be tolerated.


by Dennis Horne on February 24, 2017
Dennis Horne

Woman wakes up, gets out of bed and looks in the mirror. "Gawd! I look awful! Look at those wrinkes, bags under my eyes, sagging tits ... Say something nice about me."

Husband: "There's nothing wrong with your eyesight."

by Andin on February 24, 2017

" He might be chaos." He's a scientific theory? come on!

I suppose thinking everything you say is correct doesnt make you a liar, In your own mind. But do the rest of us have to indulge this fantasy?

And if some in the media want to call him a liar, I consider it nitpicky to say they arent being grammatically corrrect.

by Charlie on February 25, 2017

Whilst I am certainly no fan of Trump, I think most of the media needs to be ashamed of itself over its coverage of the US election.

Not content with massive bias toward Hillary during the runup, they now spin stories as fast as they can to attack Trump and stir up discontent over a presidency which in reality hasn't done anything particularly bad when compared to other presidents in recent times, including Obama.

Most of the 'lies' I've seen from Trump so far are a mix of nit-picking by the media and Trump's awful habit of endless embelishment. Also, have we forgotten Hillary landing in Bosnia "under fire"? and her husband who "did not have sex with that women"  

Fact is we all tell untruths in some way some time. It's just that these people have a microphone shoved in their face all day.

Lastly, here is a Fox News report showing thousands of Muslims cheering the 9/11 attacks:

never happened, right?  ;-)


by Dennis Horne on February 27, 2017
Dennis Horne

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart (continues) 

by Katharine Moody on February 28, 2017
Katharine Moody

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