Gerry Baker, the editor of the WSJ, spent 1,000 words on Wednesday trying to make clear exactly where he stands on the subject of calling Donald Trump a liar. This is the man who, not long ago, admonished his staff that “for all reporters and editors, writing must come into sharper focus”. So, why is it still incredibly unclear where Baker and the WSJ stand on this subject?
There are lots of ways to say or to imply that a man is lying. The strongest and simplest is to simply call a spade a spade: “this man is lying”. Baker doesn’t like that formulation, on the grounds that
The word “lie” conveys a moral as well as factual judgment... If we are to use the term “lie” in our reporting, then we have to be confident about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent.
Of course, Trump himself displays no such compunctive punctiliousness when he accuses us, in the media, of lying, but still, let’s grant Baker the moral high ground here, and ask the obvious follow-up: if we can’t say that Trump is lying, can we at least say that what he’s saying is false, or untruthful?
Baker seems to say quite clearly that the answer to that question is yes: “It’s our job,” he says, “to point out when candidates, presidents, chief executives, public officials or others in the news say things that are untrue.”
OK, Mr Baker, but are Trump’s statements, in particular, untrue?
This is where he starts getting very slippery. Watch him come oh so very close to saying that Trump’s statements are false, while always leaving himself a tiny bit of wiggle room:
Mr. Trump certainly has a penchant for saying things whose truthfulness is, shall we say for now, challengeable.
Given the number of times Mr. Trump seems to have uttered falsehoods...
It’s not because I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has said things that are untrue.
Mr. Trump has a record of saying things that are, as far as the available evidence tells us, untruthful.
When Mr. Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, we noted, high up in our report, that there was no evidence for such a claim.
I may believe that many of the things Mr. Trump has said in the past year are whoppers of the first order.
What we’ve learned here is that Baker thinks that Trump has said things which are untrue. We’ve learned that there’s no evidence that those things are true. (Of course, just because there’s no evidence that something is true, doesn’t make it false.) We’ve learned that Trump “seems” to have said things which are false.
But nowhere does Baker come out and clearly say that Trump has said dozens of things which are simply, factually, false.
Most weirdly of all, Baker is happy to say that the WSJ makes such assertions regularly:
The issue is not whether we reporters should test what he, or anyone, says against the known and established facts and offer a fair assessment of its veracity. We do that all the time.
In Baker’s world, saying “Trump said X, and there’s no evidence that X is true” is functionally equivalent to saying “Trump said X, which is untrue”. He even has a test: would a “fair-minded or intelligent reader” be “left in any doubt whether this was a truthful statement”?
Well, I’m sorry, Gerry, but yes. Yes, there are fair-minded or intelligent readers out there who can see the dissembling a mile off. And yes, those readers are going to wonder: Why is the WSJ dissembling? Why is it resorting to “no evidence that” circumlocutions, instead of, well, writing with a sharper focus?
There are two possible reasons. The first possible reason is that the falsity of the statement is not as cut-and-dried as all that. The second possible reason is that the WSJ has adopted, to use Baker’s own phrase, “a craven deference to presidential mendacity”.
Faced with that choice, what should a fair-minded or intelligent reader believe?