I had this bad dream the other night: I was working in an American news organisation and was assigned to cover the White House – and the first story was to “expose as many lies as possible”.
I woke up, relieved that it was just a dream. But then, the bug got me. Somehow, I must start to do a thorough research on how to cover the new US president – and catch all the “lies”.
So, I started with this big question: What should be the standard for using the word “lie” when covering US President Donald Trump? I went around searching for an answer.
Some journalists believe there has to be a “high bar” to call something a lie. It shouldn’t denote only stating a falsehood. It should be clear that the speaker intends to deceive. Another said journalists should be brave and upfront about it because “words matter”. It took the media too long to start calling “torture” torture. Before that it was called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.
Now, under Trump’s rule, lies could be just labelled “alternative facts”.
Some news outlets used words like “falsely” or “wrongly” to suggest that there was something untruthful about what the president said. Some used “with no evidence”, or “won’t provide any proof”, or “unverified claims”, or “repeats debunked claim”.
The New York Times decided to use the word “lie” in the headline. That was unprecedented. After initially using the word “falsely”, it switched to “lie” online and then settled on “Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie” for a recent print edition.
How did this crucial – even controversial in certain quarters – decision come about?
When he was asked by Isaac Chotiner, writing for Slate, whether he was part of the debate over whether to use the word lie in the paper, the NY Times executive editor Dean Baquet responded:
“Absolutely, and not only the discussion about using it, which I completely supported. Carolyn Ryan and Michael Barbaro, the editor and the reporter on the story, came to me and said, ‘We think this is the moment, and we want to write this’. I made the decision to make it the lead story, but they came to me and said, ‘Here’s the story we want to write’, and they described the story. Carolyn even said to me, ‘We want to put lie in the headline, are you comfortable with that?’ and I said, ‘yeah, absolutely’.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, asked whether inaccurate statements by Trump should be specifically called out as lies, said he didn’t think so because the word “lie” implies that the person told an untruth on purpose.
“Media outlets should simply present the facts and leave it up to readers to determine the truth,” he said.
But Dan Rather, the legendary news anchor, argued in his Facebook post that it is not the role of journalists to meet lies – especially from someone of Trump’s stature and power – by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms.
“Our role,” he declared, “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.”
Award-winning author Andy Schmookler, writing for Huffington Post, has this to offer to reporters on how to cover Trump: Focus on what’s unusual in what Trump says and does. That’s what the news generally highlights – the extraordinary.
Noting that Trump’s speciality is doing and saying what’s outside the norms of American politics – perhaps more than any major figure in American political history, he pointed out the president’s special traits even when he was president-elect:
- No one has ever treated his political rivals as he did.
- No presidential candidate has refused to release his income tax, or put his wealth into a blind trust, as he has.
- No one has ever just made stuff up as frequently or brazenly has he has.
- No president-elect has refused to attend intelligence briefings as he has.
- No president-elect has chosen – to head government agencies – people who have been so hostile to the missions of those agencies.
- No president-elect has so intruded into the conduct of American international relations even before taking office.
The media’s job should therefore be: call our attention to every violation of a long-standing norm of presidential conduct, and explore what it means for the nation and for our political culture for that norm to be ignored or attacked.
“The media should discuss: Is this a norm that should be swept aside, because it gets in the way of our doing the nation’s business at it needs to be done? Or is this a norm that has served the nation well?” he suggested, adding:
“Covering this extraordinary political figure in a way that addresses those questions will enable us citizens of the United States to evaluate for ourselves whether the man who is our new president is making America better, or whether he is tearing down what’s good about America.”
But how do global news organisations handle this challenge? In a message to staff recently, Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler admitted that covering Trump was a “challenge” for the news business.
He noted that it’s not every day that a US president calls journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth” or that his chief strategist dubs the media “the opposition party”.
So what’s the Reuters answer? To oppose the administration? To appease it? To boycott its briefings? To use our platform to rally support for the media?
“All these ideas are out there, and they may be right for some news operatons, but they don’t make sense of Reuters. We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world,” he said.
He added: “We don’t know yet how sharp the Trump administration’s attacks will be over time or to what extent those attacks will be accompanied by legal restrictions on our news-gathering. But we do know that we must follow the same rules that govern our work anywhere.” He then detailed the following:
l Cover what matters in people’s lives and provide them the facts they need to make better decisions.
l Become ever-more resourceful: If one door to information closes, open another one.
l Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding, and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.
l Get out into the country and learn more about how people live, what they think, what helps and hurts them, and how the government and its actions appear to them, not to us.
l Keep the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles close at hand, remembering that “the integrity, independence and freedom from bias of Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”
l Never be intimidated, but:
n Don’t pick unnecessary fights or make the story about us. We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.
n Don’t vent publicly about what might be understandable day-to-day frustration. In countless other countries, we keep our own counsel so we can do our reporting without being suspected of personal animus. We need to do that in the US, too.
n Don’t take too dark a view of the reporting environment: It’s an opportunity for us to practice the skills we’ve learned in much tougher places around the world and to lead by example – and therefore to provide the freshest, most useful, and most illuminating information and insight of any news organisation anywhere.
I personally prefer the short but very inspiring piece of advice from Keith Olbermann:
“Stop covering his speeches live. Use a delay. Employ a team of fact-checkers. Play his rants. Each time he lies, stop the tape, state the facts.”