By Peter J. Wallison.
The country’s wide political divisions are causing a serious corruption of the language we use daily in the United States. Important and descriptive words that once had a clearly understood meaning are now being distorted for political or ideological use, and nowhere more so than in the New York Times, once an authority on proper usage.
For example, a front-page headline in the Times on January 24 stated, “Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie.” Calling something a “lie” was once at the top of the opprobrium scale; it meant a false statement, known by the speaker to be false at the time it was made, and intended by the speaker to deceive his listeners. This definition cannot be applied to Trump’s statement, which most news organizations and fact-checkers have said was made “without evidence.”
In that sense, Donald Trump’s statement was not a lie unless he actually knew that the statement was false (apart from whether it was intended to deceive). And though Trump’s statement has been disputed by fact-checkers and others, there is some evidence that supports it. For example, before the 2014 midterm election, three political science scholars published an article in Elsevier’s Electoral Studies series under the title, “Do non-citizens vote in U.S. elections?” Their conclusion: “We find that some non-citizens participate in U.S. elections, and that this participation has been large enough to change meaningful election outcomes including Electoral College votes, and congressional elections.” The point here is not that Trump’s assertions are correct—they seem greatly exaggerated—but only that what he said was not what would be considered a “lie” in proper discourse.
This was not an isolated incident for the Times. In an editorial on December 25, the newspaper noted the refusal of Sen. Mitch McConnell and others to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat at the Supreme Court until after the election. McConnell’s justification, that the American people should make the choice during coming election was, according to the Times, “a patent lie.”
Why a “lie?” Because, according to the Times, “The people spoke when they re-elected Mr. Obama in 2012, entrusting him to choose new members for the court.” This is a rational argument, but to assert that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to it is lying is an obvious stretch.
Other examples of the Times misusing language and defining various serious epithets down for political purposes are also shared by other news organizations, but the Times—because of its importance to educated discourse—is the worst abuser. Another example is the misuse of the word “racism.” Trump became well known to the American people as one of the principal sponsors of the “birther” movement, which claimed, falsely, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and thus not eligible for the presidency.
Whether Trump’s involvement in this issue was promoting a lie is not the issue here. He might in fact have known that his statements about Obama’s birthplace were false, but enjoyed the publicity he was receiving. This would be reprehensible and could actually have been a lie. However, the Times, together with other news outlets, persistently called this “racism”—an ugly slur which is normally reserved for efforts to denigrate a person because of his or her race or ethnicity.
However, there is no indication that the birther campaign was fueled by Obama’s African-American heritage. The idea that this was racism is a misuse of a term that should be kept available for real cases where a person is mistreated or abused because of his or her race, not for a case where a person is accused of something that has nothing to do with race. It appears that the racism epithet was thrown in for political purposes, because saying Trump and his fellow birthers were wrong—or even liars—was not strong enough.
One final example of the Times’ abuse of language is the headline that the newspaper put on the article about President Trump’s choice of Scott Pruitt for director of the Environmental Protection Agency: “Trump Picks Scott Pruitt, Climate Change Denialist, to Lead E.P.A.” Like the racism epithet, “denialist” has a connotation that makes it more offensive than anything the nominee might have done in his public position as an official in Oklahoma. The term “denier” first entered the language to refer to someone who denied the reality of the Holocaust, perhaps the greatest act of evil in human history.
Yet the Times was willing to employ it to express contempt for a political appointee with whom it disagreed on policy.
The Times’ willingness to misuse—in effect to define down—important and meaningful English words for its own political and ideological purposes is a blot on American journalism that will last far longer than the Trump presidency and perhaps even the New York Times itself.