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Politicians and lies: How the media forgot the difference between opinion and fact

Politicians and lies: How the media forgot the difference between opinion and fact

Liar liar pants on fire

The title of this article by Holman Jenkins intrigued me: “Politicians Never Lied Before Trump,” and so I clicked on it. I was almost certain that the title was sarcastic—of course, politicians lie often, and have done so since time immemorial—and sure enough, the title was indeed meant as sarcasm.

It seems completely obvious to me that one of the most common activities of politicians is to lie. To some extent, politics almost demands it, depending on how one defines “lie.” Is a bragging exaggeration a lie? Is an optimistic promise a lie? How exaggerated does it have to be before it becomes a lie rather than mere hyperbole?

Opinions are not lies, nor is any other statement as long as the speaker really believes that what he or she says is true (which is not always the case in politics or in life). Opinions can be incorrect, they can be based on faulty reasoning or faulty information, but as long as they are sincere you can’t call them lies. And yet so-called “fact checkers” do so on a daily basis.

Facts are facts, but sometimes contradictory information (Kellyanne Conway’s much-maligned “alternative facts”) is out there and it can be very difficult to ascertain what’s correct and what’s incorrect. So politicians constantly argue by citing one fact or another, or one statistic or another, that bolsters their own point of view. That’s only a lie if the facts are obviously wrong or made up.

Some politicians lie and/or exaggerate to brag—that’s one of Trump’s favorite activities. But some lie to fool the American people about policy, its motives or its effects—that’s Obama’s favorite, and he did it very smoothly. I consider the latter type of lie to be far more pernicious for a politician to tell than the former type, considering it goes to the heart of the matter: why a person was elected and what the person intends to do while in office.

In addition, some politicians lie about themselves—not just to brag, but about something much deeper: their political aims and philosophy. Obama again, or anyone else who pretends to be more centrist than he or she is. That’s not an uncommon approach for politicians while campaigning, in order to appeal to the broadest group of people.

I often hear that Trump lies far more than any other president. That’s not my perception, unless you count as lies a lot of things that aren’t (opinions, for example), and/or a lot of things that are minor and inconsequential. The people who keep telling us that Trump lies so much are astounded and offended at the response that Obama lied as well, and about much more important things.

One can go to charts listing the lies of either or both to prove a point, but of course, the charts almost always (maybe even always) represent partisan efforts to make one or the other look worse (for example, see this critique of one of the Times’ anti-Trump efforts). And we shouldn’t be interested in sheer numbers—it’s the subject matter and import of the lie that matters, not the quantity.

But it’s not a waste of time to look at those partisan charts for Obama and Trump to compare what each side considers the person’s worst offenses. Here’s a fairly comprehensive chart of Obama’s lies, and if you study it you can see that many of them are very serious indeed. However, the sheer number of Obama’s supposed lies listed there, although large (1063), is considerably smaller than the 7,645 “false or misleading” statements supposedly made by Trump, according to the WaPo (although so far I can’t find an actual list of them). But the few examples of Trump’s lies that the WaPo does offer at that link are of the bragging/hyperbole type. And note the WaPo’s addition of “misleading,” an adjective which could probably be applied to many political statements on either side and allows the list to grow extremely long.

Take a look at NBC’s year-end list of Trump’s supposedly biggest falsehoods of 2018, and you’ll see something similar: mostly a bunch of brags as well as opinions. An example of the latter is “Democrats are ‘radical socialists’ who want to turn America into Venezuela.” Not only is that an opinion of Trump’s, but it’s a slight misquote of what Trump actually said, which was more limited (and which the article actually does go on to offer later on without pointing out the difference) [emphasis mine]: “The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela.” Not only is that an opinion, but it becomes more apparent every day that for many of those “new” Democrats, it’s probably not too far from the mark.

Compare and contrast to that list of Obama’s lies. The number on the list may be smaller, but they are far worse than Trump’s—far more important and basic, and far more troubling.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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There is a great spectrum of false or inaccurate statements. Not every one of the latter is a lie, as a lie involves an intentional falsehood. But even among lies there is a broad spectrum. Paul Ryan’s lie about having run a sub-3 hour marathon is not the same as lying under oath, or lying to hurt another, say by fraud. In the first instance, it is done to esteem oneself harmlessly. In the second, it is done to inflict harm. That’s why it’s hard to get bent out of shape from President Trump’s mis-statements. It would be nice if people would evaluate the purpose of the statement without concluding an evil intent.

Addendum: “before concluding an evil intent.”

“How the media forgot the difference between opinion and fact…”

Huh? What did they “forget?” They’re propagandists – they didn’t ‘forget’ a thing.

JusticeDelivered | January 14, 2019 at 7:52 pm

Great article, it was not lost on me that Trump exaggerates many things, usually meaningless and inconsequential stuff. Most of it bragging. Frankly I do not care about that stuff.

In my view, Obama is truly a terrible person. He was and continues to try and break the back of what makes America great. His actions were especially damaging to people in my profession.

Being a believer in holding people personally accountable, voting for Trump was just one of a long stream of things we are collectively doing to make Obama and Democrats in general very sorry for the direction they took.

The truth is that the Democratic party pulled a huge, unforgivable con on Americans to get Obama elected.

With Hillary, she was driven by personal gain, without regard to what was good for America.

It’s a Liberal bit of self-deception, adopted from the way teenagers think. Find the smallest inaccuracy in a statement or possible minor flaw in an argument, and then behave as if you’ve driven a stake through the heart of the whole kaboodle. Once this silliness is accepted, then harmless salesmanship or even mild braggadocio—”the crowds at my Inauguration were yuuge”—is considered to be the functional equivalent of destructive whoppers like “if you like your whatever, you can keep your whatever”. Obama’s lies were about facts which ripped the core out of his policies, so he lied about them, because otherwise nobody would have ever considered adopting them. Trump’s salesmanship had no such effect. There’s no equivalence at all. But children think there is. When I say that Leftoids are twelve-year-olds, it’s because they think like twelve-year-olds. But unlike real twelve-year-olds, mental maturity will evade these twits forever.

Uh, what lie has Trump told to us, the Americans who support him?

    maxmillion in reply to maxmillion. | January 14, 2019 at 10:55 pm

    Downvoter, whoever you are, don’t just down vote– tell me one lie Trump has told, just a measly one. I’m waiting.

      buckeyeminuteman in reply to maxmillion. | January 15, 2019 at 12:19 pm

      There’s a ghost fluttering all over this website down-thumbing nearly every comment. I wouldn’t take it personally. It’s what trolls do.

Colonel Travis | January 14, 2019 at 9:00 pm

I haven’t read Holman Jenkins in a while, I always thought he was intellectually rigorous.


The media in America = idiots.

I’m appalled that the Costanza rule is considered anything but despicable.

With conflation of logical domains, opinion and fact are inclusive.

This lie by Obama really made me think he was a sorry person.

One thing that I think characterizes Trump’s lies/misstatements/whatever is that when you hear him speak, you get the sense that he doesn’t really expect you to believe the shit he’s shoveling. He’s Joe Isuzu, and Obama is an actual used car salesman.

Expressing a starting position in advance of a discussion, then negotiating something less is also not a lie. It’s how people have made deals for centuries.

It would be of great bebenfot to the present culture if a better understanding of waht lies are and are not, and also at the same time what slander and libel are and are not. The groundwork for such understanding is that most human communication has a full meaning in a context, and loses it outside of that context.

One of the most powerful techniques in deception is “false lights”. This is technique that cost the loss of many many lives of shipqrecked crews and passengers in the age of priracy. “Land pirates”, bad people living along the coasts where merchant cargoes would pass near shore and whose captains and crew had to be wary of shoals and obstructions would hang lanterns in such a way to confuse the pilots as to where a harbor, channel or shoal was. The exact parallel applies in the channels of communication especially in a culture and era that is full of the dangers of emotional inflamation and that sad ignorance of morals and the history of humanity which has become widespread because of an almost worthless public education system.

Thus ignorant of the normal behaviours of the currents of human culture and not learned in the geography of morals and history our culture is full of persons and affinity groups that are like the ships at risk along a pirate coast. And false lights works. A bold signal is lit which is placed in an out of context place. Trump’s showmanship and sales bluster — good and proper when understoof in context — are called lies when moved and placed into a context where it is treated like testimony under oath by an expert. False lights.

buckeyeminuteman | January 15, 2019 at 12:17 pm

“Remember, it’s not a lie–if you believe it.” – George Costanza

CaliforniaJimbo | January 15, 2019 at 1:19 pm

It seems the truth is what you want it to be. What happened to honesty? Being a straight shooter? I guess those values have gone away with the other prized traditions of Americana

1. Traditional Definition of Lying

There is no universally accepted definition of lying to others. The dictionary definition of lying is “to make a false statement with the intention to deceive” (OED 1989) but there are numerous problems with this definition. It is both too narrow, since it requires falsity, and too broad, since it allows for lying about something other than what is being stated, and lying to someone who is believed to be listening in but who is not being addressed.

The most widely accepted definition of lying is the following: “A lie is a statement made by one who does not believe it with the intention that someone else shall be led to believe it” (Isenberg 1973, 248) (cf. “[lying is] making a statement believed to be false, with the intention of getting another to accept it as true” (Primoratz 1984, 54n2)). This definition does not specify the addressee, however. It may be restated as follows:

(L1) To lie =df to make a believed-false statement to another person with the intention that the other person believe that statement to be true.

L1 is the traditional definition of lying. According to L1, there are at least four necessary conditions for lying. First, lying requires that a person make a statement (statement condition). Second, lying requires that the person believe the statement to be false; that is, lying requires that the statement be untruthful (untruthfulness condition). Third, lying requires that the untruthful statement be made to another person (addressee condition). Fourth, lying requires that the person intend that that other person believe the untruthful statement to be true (intention to deceive the addressee condition).