If a tree falls in the forest and it makes a sound but Donald Trump says it is silent, will journalists call his statement a falsehood or a lie?
Well, his statement isn’t true. But is he deliberately lying about not hearing the tree fall? Or is he confused about what he heard? These considerations are among the many that go into deciding what to call Trump’s statements which are untrue; a debate which flared a few weeks ago after New York Times White House reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted that “Trump told two demonstrable falsehoods.”
The so-called falsehoods in question related to Trump’s tweets where he said the Times made up a source (they didn’t) and said his policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their parents wasn’t the policy of his administration (it was). Reaction to Haberman’s tweet was swift, with many people pointing out that she didn’t use the word “lie.”
Trump has demonstrated not only a propensity for making false statements, but a willingness to straight-up lie
A lie, according to Google, is “an intentionally false statement.” So, the earlier questions from my hypothetical tree-falls-in-the-forest scenario remain. Was Trump deliberately making false statements, and therefore lying? Or was he confused, misinformed, ignorant or misspeaking for some other reason?
As Haberman noted in another tweet, it “can be hard to label [what Trump says] because, as anyone who has worked for him will tell you in candor, he often thinks whatever he says is what’s real.”
Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief, fact-checks Trump’s statements regularly. Following the Twitter storm sparked by Haberman’s initial labelling of Trump’s claims as “falsehoods,” Dale wrote that not all of Trump’s “inaccurate statements” should be called lies.
“In some cases, it’s safe to say Trump is intentionally trying to deceive. In other cases, it’s far less clear that he’s being wrong intentionally—because, with Donald Trump, you regularly can’t rule out the possibility that he is confused or ignorant,” he wrote. This, Dale said, means Trump’s statements need to be labelled on a case-by-case basis.
From my perspective as a journalist, I agree with Haberman and Dale: we don’t always know that Trump knows his statement is false, because he might falsely believe it is true (confused yet?). Trump has demonstrated not only a propensity for making false statements, but a willingness to straight-up lie; like when he tried to pass off his “covfefe” tweet as something he legitimately intended to tweet.
As journalists we seek to cover people—no matter who they are, and what they say about our profession—truthfully and accurately, and part of that means using the appropriate language to describe their statements.
But Lauren Duca, writer for Teen Vogue, makes an interesting counterpoint. She wrote that “Journalists must work to help the public make sense of this great American dumpster fire, and a part of doing that is centering the conversation around the White House’s conflicting versions of reality.” She writes that journalists must call Trump’s lies, lies—or, if they don’t, provide an explanation for readers as to why the word “lie” is not appropriate, “along with context for understanding this administration’s abusive relationship with the truth.”
I agree that adding this context for readers, perhaps in a note at the bottom of an article, an editorial or article by a public editor or journalist who covers Trump, would be helpful. I still think, though, that part of journalists job to make sense of what is happening is to make the distinction between what false statements Trump makes where he purposely lies to confuse, obscure or embellish, and those where this intent is not there.
Of course, we can’t know exactly what Trump is thinking every time he makes a false statement. We don’t know if he knows he is lying or not. He often appears to believe the false statements he makes. That is why I think this conversation, about something as simple as one or two words used to describe Trump’s statements, is a critical conversation for journalists, politicians and citizens alike.