The Big Lie

Controversy over Michelle Wolf’s comedy routine revealed a disconnect about what the media actually does.

Comedian Michelle Wolf and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp.
Comedian Michelle Wolf and American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mike Theiler/AFP/Getty Images and Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Netflix.

Sean Hannity managed to make news Wednesday night, entirely by accident. Rudy Giuliani, recently tapped for President Trump’s legal team, offhandedly told him that the president reimbursed attorney Michael Cohen for paying hush money to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Trump and his spokespeople had denied he even knew about the deal. In a series of tweets on Thursday morning, Trump essentially confirmed Giuliani’s statement while arguing that a reimbursement wouldn’t have been in violation of campaign finance law.

A layperson might now say that the administration has lied about the payment to Stormy Daniels. The major press will not. “Breaking News,” a tweet from the New York Times on Thursday morning read. “President Trump reversed his position on a payment to the porn actress Stormy Daniels, confirming that he reimbursed his lawyer for it.” The linked article goes on to say that Trump “directly contradicted his earlier statements.” NPR’s write-up of the story also says Trump’s admission “directly contradicts” the initial denials. At CNN, we read that the president is “shifting his story about the Stormy Daniels controversy.”

Reading all this brings to mind a minicontroversy that erupted Monday when Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, veered, a bit randomly, from pretend indignation over Michelle Wolf’s remarks at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner over the weekend into a short lecture on journalistic ethics during an interview on CNN. “Just present the facts—let the American people decide who’s lying,” he said. “The journalist shouldn’t be the one to say that the president or that his spokesperson is lying.”

This bewildered many who took to social media shortly afterward, including quite a few journalists. “Holding those in power accountable is literally the main job of journalists,” author and Harper’s Bazaar political editor Jennifer Wright tweeted. “If this is a direct quote absent some clarifying context, it’s bonkers,” National Review’s Jonah Goldberg wrote. “Shall we task the tanners, cobblers or fish mongers with this responsibility?”

You wouldn’t have known it watching the post-Wolf uproar unfold, but as the coverage of the administration’s reversal on Stormy Daniels illustrates, most of the people presently running American political journalism agree completely with Schlapp. The majority of nonopinion news outlets in this country take pains to avoid using the word lie or otherwise accusing politicians of dishonesty—a norm that has been enforced, with few exceptions, for the better part of the past century, though not without debate. That debate has often seemed like a fight over semantics. It is really a debate by proxy over adversarialism and how journalists should orient themselves in response to power.

In the mid-2000s, it occurred to a handful of journalists that there might be a public interest in routinely reporting whether the claims politicians make are true. Since then, “fact-checkers”—essentially special forces units who evaluate political claims in pieces cordoned off from standard reportage—have gained prominence at specialty sites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org and in house at many other news outlets. But their capacities and the patience of liberals besides were sorely tested by the many now largely forgotten distortions of the Mitt Romney campaign in 2011 and 2012—claims so brazenly dishonest that a number of writers speculated American politics had entered a “post-truth” age. The term was deployed by the New York Times’ Paul Krugman in a December 2011 column, criticizing Romney for suggesting President Obama was an anti-capitalist and mischaracterizing Obama’s comments abroad as “apologizing for America.” “Why does Mr. Romney think he can get away with this kind of thing?” Krugman asked. The answer, according to Krugman, was that Romney had “already gotten away with a series of equally fraudulent attacks” and the political press would be reluctant to hold Romney accountable. “[I]f past experience is any guide,” he wrote. “most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced,’ which means that every time they point out that a Republican lied they have to match it with a comparable accusation against a Democrat—even if what the Democrat said was actually true or, at worst, a minor misstatement.”

A few weeks later, the Times’ then–public editor Arthur Brisbane addressed the column and asked readers: “Should the Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about,” Brisbane wrote. “As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same?” He got an earful in response. “If the Times is not going to be a truth vigilante,” one representative commenter wrote, “then I certainly do not need to be a Times subscriber.” A number of journalists felt similarly. “The Times itself has amplified the assertion—made by Romney and Rick Perry—that Obama has apologized for America, without any rebuttal, at least three times,” the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote. “I urge Brisbane to check [the articles] out. If he does, he’ll see that any Times customer reading them comes away misled.”

Debate over how to handle political dishonesty was revived and intensified by the Trump campaign. By November 2015, Trump’s mendacity was raising enough concern that a defense of accusatory restraint was offered by the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump. “For the media to call him a liar might please those who already dislike Trump,” he wrote, “but it doesn’t do the media much good.” Bump argued reporters “can’t know [Trump’s] intentionality” and that some of his lies could be chalked up to exaggeration: “If he inflated his story to some degree to reinforce his apparent strategy of engendering fear among Republican voters, is that a lie or is it rhetoric?”

Tides shifted in spite of those arguments. In September 2016, the New York Times decided to call Trump’s claim that Obama’s birthplace was in doubt a lie. “That’s not an obfuscation, that’s not an exaggeration,” editor Dean Baquet explained to NPR. “I think that was just demonstrably a lie, and I think that lie is not a word that newspapers use comfortably.” The word lie was used again to describe the campaign’s contradictory claims about whether Trump supported a small-business tax cut. Since then, mainstream outlets have taken to implying dishonesty on the part of Trump and those who work with him—with and without the word lie—in all kinds of ways, from written and verbal asides to on-screen captions. Many, as the Stormy Daniels story again suggests, remain uneasy about this. NPR, for one, still refuses entirely to use the word lie and directly rebuffed criticisms from listeners that Trump’s demonstrably false claims about the audience at a speech he delivered in Flint, Michigan, the size of the crowd at his inauguration, and his relationship with intelligence agencies should have been called lies straightforwardly. “I think the minute you start branding things with a word like ‘lie,’ you push people away from you,” former senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes said in January 2017.

The debate about how to handle dishonesty is, moreover, essentially closed when it comes to political figures outside of Trumpworld. In his explanation of why the Times began using the word lie, Dean Baquet argued that Trumpian dishonesty merited different treatment from obviously wrong and misleading claims made by other politicians about public policy; claiming falsely that a tax plan “will save a billion dollars,” for instance, is, in his words, merely the stuff of the “usual political fare.” The implication here is that while journalists at major outlets can readily ascertain whether Trump and his cronies are lying with a bit of effort, they generally can’t ascribe intent to anyone else in politics. Negative intent, that is. When it comes to positive intentions and motivations, supposedly neutral political journalists are practically telepaths. Take, for instance, one Washington Post reporter’s words last month on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s impending retirement. Readers were told that Paul leaves behind “a mixed legacy for a lawmaker who joined Congress as a young and idealistic policy wonk two decades ago and reached the greatest heights Capitol Hill has to offer, yet failed repeatedly to bring his ideas to fruition or turn his rhetoric into reality.” There is, in fact, considerable debate over whether Paul Ryan’s reputation as a wonk sincerely committed to the budget hawkery voiced in his statements and speeches is deserved. One side of that debate, the credulous side, was presented as fact.

Whether or not one agrees that journalists shouldn’t call probable lies “lies” or not, it should be obvious that a political press that avoids sanctioning the people it covers for dishonesty whenever possible perfectly suits the aims of dishonest politicians—as Richard Rovere, a political journalist and, in spite of himself, a supporter of the norm against accusations, wrote in his 1959 biography of Joseph McCarthy:

[I]n large part because McCarthy was a true innovator, because he lied with an unprecedented boldness, because he invented new kinds of lies—even those newspapers that were willing to expose him found that they lacked the technical resources. If he was to be called a liar, someone had to call him a liar. The American press was simply not set up so that it could feature a “McCarthy Lies” story alongside a “McCarthy Says—” story. If his fellow Senators had been ready to challenge each mendacity, or if either of the two Presidents of his day had been willing and able to denounce him regularly, it would have worked. But that was not to be.

As with Trump now, there was a faith among neutral journalists of the time that the truth would be worked out somehow, either in the political sphere or within a public just barely able to keep abreast of political matters in the first place. Those assumptions were belied, obviously, by McCarthy’s success, the belatedness of his downfall, and the abuses of power that greater and lesser figures have managed to get away with since.

There’s much evidence in the age of Trump—in headlines and tag lines, in stellar and now award-winning reporting—that journalists at the major outlets take their adversarial responsibilities against such figures more seriously now than ever. This weekend, there was also evidence, in the bizarre handwringing over Michelle Wolf’s routine and in reports that journalists tried to console White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders afterward, that they still don’t take them quite as seriously as they perhaps should and that the press has tied its hands in a way that the political figures they cover with such urgency find highly convenient.

The response to Wolf’s routine and the Schlapp backlash also implies that there’s a large constituency of people who believe making the kinds of judgment calls the major press shies away from is something essential to the task of journalism. It seems unlikely that the papers and the networks will ever get more uniformly strident in response, and unlikely too that the kinds of missives written to justify existing policy will ever reach and convince those not already riveted by discussions of journalistic ethics that reporters should be shooting for coverage that falls just short of candor. All who want candor are going to have to wise up to what mainstream journalism is actually offering them and seek out voices willing to be more frank.