I understand that the Times didn't invent this Trump-era journalism problem of allergic reaction to "lies" and "liars." Lots of outlets play the game. But there's no question that the Times sent an important signal to the rest of the journalism community. The hugely influential paper seems to cling to the idea that, because it can't read Trump's mind, it can't tell if he is lying or just confused and misinformed, and therefore the newsroom isn't comfortable calling him a liar. The Times decided it was official paper policy to pretend it simply couldn't figure out what was going on.
In its more than 150 years of publishing, I genuinely doubt the Times has ever tried this hard not to be honest with its readers. Indeed, what's so amazing is how hard Timesmen and women work not to be clear regarding Trump, and all the thesauruses staffers have burned through in order to avoid using the L-word, which leads to train wrecks like Sunday's "inaccurate refrain" tweet regarding murderous claims about newborns.
By the way, I know that technically the Times’ newsroom has, from time to time, referred to Trump as a liar and his White House as being awash in lies. But overall, the daily has been extraordinarily reticent to simply tell the truth about a president who's clearly a pathological liar, who tells falsehoods about every conceivable topic, and who doesn't care if he's debunked or fact-checked.
When White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lied her way through a CNN interview about Trump's history of hush money payments, the Times announced that she had merely "made false and misleading statements." When Trump gave a wide-ranging interview to the Associated Press and lied about a litany of topics, the Times suggested that he'd "made inaccurate statements." When Trump unfurled numerous lies during a Rose Garden event, the Times reported that he had told "richly embellished" stories. And when he spread lies about the "criminal deep state" out to get him, the daily reported that he was advancing "unproven theories."
Just last month, the paper touted what I'm sure it thought was a critical look at Trump's incessant prevarications about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Except instead of detailing how Trump lies about the deadly topic relentlessly, the Times pretended he was just confused — that he had "trouble keeping his facts straight about 9/11."
Back in February, Trump told a gargantuan lie when he claimed that 72 percent of arrested undocumented immigrants don't show up for mandatory court appearances. The actual figure is 2 percent. The Times politely labeled that a "false statement." When he declared a bogus border national emergency, which he supported with a mountain of lies, the Times patiently detailed the "misleading" statements that "were not rooted in facts." Gee, what's another word for false and misleading claims that are deliberately told over and over and over?
Do you see the bizarre dichotomy? News outlets such as the Times have wisely dedicated staffers to detail Trump's lies, which get written up in sidebars. Yet those same writers are not allowed to use the L-word to describe what they find. Instead, when Trump tells ghoulish lies about mothers and doctors executing babies, the paper limply opts for "an inaccurate refrain."
History is not going to look kindly on the paper's abdication during the Trump era. And that’s why refusing to be honest, and not calling him a liar every day, will haunt the Times.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.
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