Why you can't call Donald Trump a liar (yet)

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.