Journalists struggle with the ‘L word’

The first week of the Trump administration has put journalists in a spot they found themselves in during the campaign: Debating when a lie is a lie.

The latest volley comes after President Donald Trump indicated this week that he would have won the popular vote for president had it not been for voter fraud. There’s no evidence that’s the case, nor is it the first time the president has repeated the falsehood nor been told it’s a falsehood.

It’s a lie, the New York Times said.

This morning on NPR’s Morning Edition, NPR journalists found themselves having to explain on the air why they’re not following suit, a clear indication that listeners aren’t happy with the network’s failure to call out Trump.

“A false statement made with intent to deceive,” said Mary Louise Kelly. “Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was. I can tell you what he said and how that squares, or doesn’t, with facts.”

Also appearing on the program was Michael Oreskes, the network’s news boss, and the missing voice on Morning Edition the last time NPR tackled the question with the editor of the New York Times.

“Our job as journalists is to report, to find facts, and establish their authenticity and share them with everybody,” says Oreskes, who formerly worked for the Times. “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.”

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In an op-ed in Tuesday’s Boston Globe, Charles Taylor, of New York University, isn’t buying this. His essay responded to a Meet the Press comment from Wall St. Journal editor Gerald Baker, whose position mirrored that of NPR’s Kelly.

“Journalism that, in the face of the facts, refuses a reasonable and obvious judgment has abandoned not journalistic ethics, but common sense. Baker and all those who think his demurrals are reasonable now have a decision to make: Act as journalists or as part of the most prestigious union of stenographers the nation has ever seen,” he writes.

In determining that they can’t say ‘lie’, however, journalists must recognize that they’re determining instead that the president is merely misinformed. That also requires a judgment without proof.