Seventy percent of Donald Trump’s public statements are false, according to PolitiFact. Some percentage of those are lies.
It’s time to call lies “lies”—especially when they’re told compulsively, unmistakably, and provably by public figures, including Trump, who takes office today.
The media has historically been slow to use hard words to report hard truths. The term “torture” was resisted by The New York Times longer than its executive editor said was necessary, in hindsight, and had instead been called “harsh or brutal interrogation methods.” We do ourselves and the public a disservice—factually, ethically, and reputationally—by not naming something what it is.
“Lie” has a specific definition that guides Fusion’s use of the word: To lie is to intentionally mislead people toward false belief.
All politicians bend the truth to some extent, but Trump boastfully breaks it, from his 9/11-chants lie, to his “birther” lie, to his Iraq war lie, to his illegal-voters lie, to his lie about not posing as his own invented publicist. These are lies, not merely misrepresentations. Trump knows he supported the Iraq war, or must know, because of his own public statements of support at the time. He knows President Obama was born here, and must have always known, because of the irrefutable evidence. Trump knows that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims did not “cheer” 9/11 from New Jersey, because it wasn’t ever reported—anywhere—and absolutely would have been.
Even if the public doesn’t expect Trump’s honesty anymore, or ever did, we should expect it from our president and public officials. By this definition, Trump has lied, does lie, is a liar, and, judging by his public record, is prone to continue lying. Through his teeth. Through his Twitter account.
This is why the media has to call lies “lies.” Careful reporters try to avoid presuming a person’s intention, choosing words like “misrepresentation” over “lie.” But the instinct to apply gradations of language where none fit can be dangerous. The false restraint shown by not naming “lies” has to be resisted, because the erosion of public trust in the media and government is caused by an avalanche of unnamed lies.
Only recently have many news outlets called Trump’s lies what they are, in both news and opinion pieces:
The New York Times spoke of Trump’s misrepresentations, but it was not until [September 2016] that we called Trump a liar. Since that breakthrough in a front-page story, the word has appeared regularly in relation in Trump.
After five years as the chief promoter of a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace, Donald Trump abruptly reversed course…[and] then immediately peddled another false conspiracy.
—September 16, 2016
Trump lies the way other people breathe.
—June 16, 2016
After he lied on Sept. 16…Politico chose to spend a week fact-checking Trump.
But “fact-checking” Trump implies there might be a factual mistake that needs correction, instead of a purposeful deviation from the truth. Trump needs more than a fact-check. He needs a reality check. And the media should keep providing it.
This doesn’t mean we have to take Trump literally all the time. But presidential lies can have world-destabilizing consequences: The Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam and false weapons reports in Iraq were built on lies. Not merely misrepresentations. Lies.
The media is finally coming around to using “lies” with Trump because he lies so often, about so much, so openly, and so plainly, from the trivial to the meaningful.
On Inauguration Day today, and every day after, a lie gets called a lie.
“I don’t like to lie, no. I don’t like to lie, no. It’s something that—it’s not something that I would like to be doing.”
☝️️That’s a lie.
This post is part of Fusion’s series on our house style guide, a living document spearheaded by copy editor Daniel King and crowdsourced from editorial staff across our teams for input on words’ accuracy. Reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.