There is much to criticize about the mainstream media’s coverage of President Donald Trump. But the increased willingness of the mainstream media to call out Trump’s falsehoods is one area where they deserve some praise.
It has become routine for mainstream outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR to say that a particular Trump statement is false or has no supporting evidence. This is a positive development in the media world. While some may argue that calling Trump’s statements false goes against the notion of objective journalism, the media’s first responsibility is not to be objective, but to tell the truth. Thus far, media of many different kinds have shown an encouraging willingness to challenge Trump.
Still, more could be done. Too many outlets still hesitate to label Trump’s outlandishly false statements as lies. The Associated Press and NPR have avoided using the L–word, while The New York Times and The Washington Post have used it sparingly.
Some outlets have defended this choice by pointing out that the dictionary definition of a lie is “a false statement made with intent to deceive,” but that intent is hard to prove. These organizations are right that “lie” isn’t a word that should be used lightly, but they’re wrong to put such strict parameters around its use.
There is power in calling something a lie versus calling it a falsehood. Using the word “lie” is not just a way of saying a statement is false, but also a denunciation of the information and the person who shared the statement. It puts onto that person a degree of responsibility for sharing false information. If journalists get tangled in the semantics of the word, they lose part of their ability to hold the powerful accountable for what they say to the public.
The fact that many journalists can’t bring themselves to label Trump’s maliciously false remarks as lies also brings up doubt about their ability to challenge future administrations. What happens when there’s a president who’s less obvious about spreading misinformation? If mainstream journalists refuse to call out Trump for his lies now, the word likely won’t appear in the media’s future descriptions of those in power. That would be unfortunate because, as the great journalist I.F. Stone once wrote, “all governments lie.”
We’ve seen this hesitation to challenge power before. In the early 2000s, George W. Bush lied his way into the Iraq War. The majority of the media establishment not only let it happen but acted as cheerleaders for the war effort. If the media keeps hiding under the guise of semantics and technicalities, deceivers much more skilled than Trump will again go unchecked and unchallenged. And as we saw with the result of the Iraq War, that can only have negative repercussions.