The Truth About Lies

In his Oct. 28/Nov. 4 column, “Cruel and Unusual,” Eric Alterman falters when condemning the August 6 New York Times headline “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” Echoing widespread denunciations from progressives, Alterman suggests that “the paper was deceiving its readers on Trump’s behalf”—even though the headline was “literally true” as a description of Trump’s speech after the El Paso massacre. Alterman bizarrely adds that the Times, “like nearly all news organizations,” has been “hesitant about calling Trump a liar.” In the summer of 2017, however, the Times published a massive article titled “Trump’s Lies”; the words “lies” and “lying” appear regularly in its coverage of him; and The Washington Post’s lie tally has topped 13,000.

According to a tweet from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the August 6 Times headline illustrated “how white supremacy is aided by—and often relies upon—the cowardice of mainstream institutions.” Can’t we elaborate on the horrors of this presidency without brandishing Trumpish hyperbole against our allies? A headline should accurately summarize an article and the events it discusses. As I have written elsewhere, our country’s political prospects could easily worsen if premier journalistic venues use headlines to editorialize.

Peter Minowitz
Department of Political Science
Santa Clara University
santa clara, calif.

Eric Alterman Replies

Professor Minowitz is mistaken. In the single example he uses to attempt to undermine my argument, he quotes an article from 2017 that appears beneath the word “opinion.” Trump is called a liar in opinion columns everywhere. But when it comes to the news pages, almost never. The New York Times has done it, according to my count, only once, perhaps twice, and certainly not regularly. Times executive editor Dean Baquet explains why: “If you get loose with the word lie, you’re going to look pretty scurrilous. Right? It’s going to be in every story.” The tally by the Washington Post fact-checkers that Minowitz cites does not refer to “lies” but to “false or misleading claims.” The Post, too, has used the word “lie” only once. That paper’s executive editor, Martin Baron, explains his hesitancy as follows: “I think you have to actually have documentation, proof, that whoever you’re saying lied actually knew that what he or she was saying was in fact false.”

Ocasio-Cortez is also correct, but that’s another story.

Eric Alterman

Fixing a Supreme Injustice

Re Elie Mystal’s “The Extreme Court” [Oct. 28/Nov. 4]: Here’s my two pennies’ worth. There is only one answer to the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court: Register to vote. Vote in local, county, state, school, congressional, senatorial, and presidential elections. And push for a nationwide mail-in ballot.
Edgar Gehlert
hyde park, n.y.

Bookish Praise

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter E. Gordon’s review of Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom [“Either This World or the Next,” October 7]. Gordon writes beautifully, with subtlety and precision. I love The Nation’s book review section. Please keep up your high standards of writing and thinking!
David Schonfeld
west hartford, conn.