You can’t just say the president is lying,” New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller told an audience of Northwestern journalism students in 2004. “You can say Mr. Bush’s statement was not factually accurate. You can’t say the president is lying — that’s a judgment call.”
The paper has come a long way in 12 years. On January 24, the Times published a front-page story under the headline, “Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie” — referring to the false claim that he lost the popular vote due to millions of illegal votes. The Times followed up with “Press Secretary Affirms that Trump Believes Lie of Millions of Illegal Voters” and “Trump Won’t Back Down From His Voting Fraud Lie. Here Are the Facts.”
The shift from, in 2004, being unable to acknowledge that a president can lie — even a president whose lies, carried in that very paper, dragged the country into a catastrophic war — to calling out particular lies in front-page headlines is an important one. Cooked intelligence about WMDs wasn’t enough to make the Times reevaluate the sacredness of its “on the one hand” equivocating, but a chief executive who seems to believe that his every statement rewrites reality has compelled a rethink.
It’s a journey that, so far, most of the Times’ colleagues have been unwilling to join. NPR Senior Vice President of News Michael Oreskes, for one, declared, “I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you.” Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker concurred, saying, “You run the risk that you look like you’re not being objective.”
Note the concern for appearance that drives the leeriness about labeling lies. If part of your audience will object to your judgment that the president is being deliberately deceptive, the self-interested thing to do is keep it to yourself. That goes double if your outlet is dependent on government funds, like NPR, or is owned by a leader of the right-wing movement, like Rupert Murdoch’s Journal.
But there is a danger, when one calls out Trump’s most obvious, straightforward lies, of appearing to give credence to his larger, subtler ones. Take the Times’ lead news analysis of Trump’s inaugural speech. Mark Landler wrote, “It remains an open question whether he will continue to be the relentless populist who was on display on Friday.”
Really? After stocking his administration with plutocrats like “Foreclosure King” Steve Mnuchin as treasury secretary; a fast-food CEO who prefers robots to human workers, Andrew Puzder, as secretary of labor; and billionaire investor Wilbur “the 1% is being picked on for political reasons” Ross as secretary of commerce, the jury is still out on whether Trump is genuinely a populist?
This is perhaps Trump’s most important lie: As long as his remaining followers believe him when he says, “I will never stop fighting for you,” he doesn’t need them to believe anything else. Yet on the question of Trump’s political ideology, the Times seems determined to report only what he says, not what he does.
Then there are the lies of the Times itself, basic fictions that come from the paper’s longstanding role as the paper of record that speaks to and for a corporate establishment. For example, in “Trump Revives Keystone Pipeline Rejected by Obama,” the Times assured readers that the Keystone XL pipeline “would not have a momentous effect on … the environment,” with validation from an energy consultant. The Times would never claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax — but it will advance the equally absurd conclusion that its oil industry advertisers can sell all the crude they’ve discovered without disastrous consequences.
Or take “What’s in the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household? Lots of Sugary Soda,” a morality play of a health piece that distorts a USDA report beyond recognition. In fact, the report found that food-stamp families had pretty much the same diet as non-food-stamp families. The point of bashing the poor is to reassure affluent readers that they live in a meritocracy — but this piece will come in handy when Trump’s GOP allies take an axe to food subsidies
These are dire times for democracy, and calling Trump out on his most basic gaslighting is a necessary defense. But as long as establishment media like the New York Times cling to the myths that allow power to go unchallenged, they’ll be part of the problem and not part of the resistance.