And from the moment he became president, Donald J. Trump has unleashed so many of consequence that the public has barely had time to parse their full implication. Words about the dishonest media, the end of Obamacare, the construction of that border wall with Mexico — this is an abbreviated list, and he hasn’t even completed his first week in office.
Amid the verbal deluge, President Trump this week repeated an assertion he made shortly after his election: that millions of ballots cast illegally by undocumented immigrants cost him the popular vote. If true, this would suggest the wholesale corruption of American democracy.
Not to worry: As far as anyone knows, the president’s assertion is akin to saying that millions of unicorns also voted illegally.
But such a baseless statement by a president challenged the news media to find the precise words to describe it. This will be a recurring challenge, given President Trump’s habit of speaking in sales-pitch hyperbole and his tendency to deride any less-than-flattering report as ‘fake news.’
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The words needed to be exactly right. ‘And the language has a rich vocabulary for describing statements that fall short of the truth,’ said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information. ‘They’re ‘baseless,’ they’re ‘bogus,’ they’re ‘lies,’ they’re ‘untruths.’’
Rarely are these words, each with its own nuance, applied directly to something said by a president, though others have also dissembled (like Bill Clinton on whether he had sex with an intern). ‘This is the very unique situation that we find ourselves in as journalists and as a country,’ said Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. ‘We have an administration that seems to be asserting a right to its own facts and doesn’t seem to be able to produce evidence to back those claims.’
Still, carefully chosen words can capture that. ‘A whole vocabulary has come bubbling up that would not have been used five years ago,’ Mr. Nunberg said in an interview. ‘People are going to have to sit down and decide: Are we going to want to go over the moral consequences of telling an untruth? The mere fact of it being untrue? Or the fact that it’s bogus, baseless or groundless?’
Some news organizations used words like ‘falsely’ or ‘wrongly’ — adverbs that tend to weaken the impact — in framing what the president said. Some used ‘with no evidence,’ or ‘won’t provide any proof,’ or ‘unverified claims,’ or ‘repeats debunked claim.’
The New York Times, though, ultimately chose more muscular terminology, opting to use the word ‘lie’ in the headline. After initially using the word ‘falsely,’ it switched to ‘lie’ online and then settled on ‘Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie’ for Tuesday’s print edition."