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Republican Kari Lake at an Arizona rally featuring Donald Trump

Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake speaks during a campaign rally attended by former U.S. President Donald Trump at Legacy Sports USA on October 09, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. Trump was stumping for Arizona GOP candidates, including gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, ahead of the midterm election on November 8. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Don't Call Them Election Deniers. Call Them Election Liars

Words matter and the media bear a special responsibility to get them right. When they don't, democracy itself can become the ultimate victim.

Steven Harper

"Lie: To make an untrue statement with intent to deceive."
"Liar: A person who tells lies."

            -Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Thomas Jefferson warned that an informed citizenry would be crucial to the survival of democracy. In pursuit of that mission today, words matter and the media bear a special responsibility to get them right. When they don't, democracy itself can become the ultimate victim. That's happening now.

Universally, the media have settled on the term election "denier" to describe election liars. The difference goes far beyond semantics.

Labeling election liars accurately is not "taking political sides." It's the responsibility of a free press in the fight to save democracy.

Election "denier" is tailor-made for today's "bothsidesism" press. It implies the existence of two defensible but competing positions on President Joseph Biden's unambiguous victory. It allows the media to straddle both sides of a polarized electorate without the risk of alienating those offended by the plain truth. Clarity yields to the chase for subscribers, viewers, and online clicks.

But by definition, those spreading the Big Lie that Trump won the election are liars. Asserting otherwise ignores Biden's resounding popular vote and Electoral College wins, followed by Trump's 60+ unsuccessful court challenges seeking to reverse those results. It disregards schemes that are the subject of federal and state criminal investigations to subvert the election. It perpetuates the danger that culminated in the January 6 insurrection.

And it undermines what matters most to American democracy: public confidence in free, fair, and secure elections.

The widespread use of election "denier" is the culmination of the press's struggle to cover Donald Trump appropriately. Until 2015, the country had never seen a presidential candidate like him. Rarely calling him a persistent liar—which he is—news organizations accused him of more benign acts: "dishonesty, spreading falsehoods, misrepresenting facts, distorting news, passing on inaccuracies, and being loose with the truth."

The Washington Post didn't use the word "lie" about a false Trump assertion until August 22, 2018. By then, its fact checker had documented his more than 4,200 "false or misleading claims" but had never used the "L" word. Rationalizing his prior reluctance, the fact checker wrote, "[I]t is difficult to document whether the president knows he is not telling the truth."

Actually, it's not. In a court of law, juries can and do infer intent from surrounding facts and circumstances, including prior bad acts. By the time Trump left office, the fact checker had found more than 30,000 "false or misleading" Trump claims, but rarely had the paper called them lies.

Likewise, Associated Press standards editor John Daniszewski explained, "[W]e feel it's better to say what the facts are, say what the person said and let the audience make the decision whether or not it's an intentional lie."

Such disingenuous sophistry abdicates the press' fundamental responsibility in a democracy. Trump has overwhelmed the public with lies, and his allies have amplified them. Americans need the help of respected news organizations to separate fact from fiction. Identifying lies—and avoiding euphemisms in describing them—should be part of every real journalist's (and headline editor's) job.

In 2018, Dean Baquet, then-executive editor of the New York Times, offered this excuse:

"The word 'lie' is very powerful. For one thing, it assumes that someone knew the statement was false. Another reason to use the word judiciously is that our readers could end up focusing more on our use of the word than on what was said. And using 'lie' repeatedly could feed the mistaken notion that we're taking political sides. That's not our role."

Previous press malfeasance does not justify its current failures. Take Baquet's points in order and apply them anew to election liars: First, the power of the word "lie" is all the more reason to use it when democracy's survival hangs in the balance. Second, election liars know that Biden won because—almost two years later—they can cite no credible evidence to the contrary. Third, audiences should focus on the fact that Trump and his allies are lying to them about Biden's right to the presidency.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, labeling election liars accurately is not "taking political sides." It's the responsibility of a free press in the fight to save democracy.

The descent down the slippery slope of equivocation is swift. On October 13, 2022, the front-page headline of the Times' online edition read: "Over 370 Republican Candidates Have Cast Doubt on the 2020 Election."

"Cast Doubt"—that's not so bad, right? Two days later, the article's headline in my home-delivery print edition was worse: "2020 Election Skeptics Crowd the Republican Ticket Nationwide."

"Skeptics"—that's a good trait, isn't it? To ancient Greek philosophers, skeptics were merely critical thinkers about debatable propositions. The current dictionary definitions of skepticism include "an attitude of doubt… either in general or toward a particular object" and "the doctrine that… knowledge in a particular area is uncertain."

The election liars' only intent is to deceive, and their battle cry is simple: "If we don't win the next election, it must have been rigged—just as the last one was."

But there is no longer any doubt or uncertainty about President Joseph Biden's election victory. Asserting the contrary view is lying. Period.

The election liars' only intent is to deceive, and their battle cry is simple: "If we don't win the next election, it must have been rigged—just as the last one was."

To observe the impact of failing to call election liars what they are, look at videos depicting the death and destruction that occurred on January 6.

Look at how, since January 6, Trump's Big Lie has metastasized throughout the GOP and the American body politic.

Look at gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake (R-Ariz). In a CNN appearance on October 16, 2022, she refused to commit to accepting defeat.

Look at how the stage is set for violence and chaos that could erupt in key states and congressional districts where Republicans lose in November.

But some of the election liars will win in November 2022.

Now imagine November 2024.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of several books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He has been a regular columnist for Moyers on Democracy, Dan Rather’s News & Guts, and The American Lawyer.

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