The media coverage of “Donald Trump’s lies,” and most recently of the stupid Sweden controversy, conflates several different categories of statements and treats them all as being equally serious. For example, let’s suppose Trump tells this story at one of his rallies:
“I was out on the boat – last week with Bill Clinton – just off the coast a few miles away from Mar a Lago – one of the great resorts of the world, by the way — and pulled in a 9-foot sailfish, the biggest sailfish ever caught. The biggest in those waters. It was a hell of a fight – gigantic fish almost pulled me overboard, one of the hands grabbed me and saved me really, kept me from going in – (Trump mimes himself almost falling into the water and being pulled back, to comic effect) – a Cuban immigrant by the way, a legal one and America can be proud of him.”
And let’s suppose that the next day the New York Times prints a front page story hysterically denouncing this story as a lie. When we read the article, we may find out that Trump’s story was any of the following:
1. An outright lie: Trump has never caught a sailfish in his life.
2. An exaggeration to make Trump look better: The exaggeration may be relatively slight (the sailfish wasn’t 9 feet long; it was 8 feet, which is still an awfully big fish) or gross (it was a 4-foot sailfish, which is puny).
3. An enhancement to make the story more entertaining: Trump is actually a terrific fisherman. He didn’t need any help and never came close to falling into the water.
4. A statement that Trump made without regard to its truth or falsity: The hand has a Hispanic accent but Trump has no idea whether he is a Cuban immigrant or not. He added that part to the story because it supports one of his pet policy positions. Actually, the hand is an American citizen born in Miami, and he is of Guatemalan ancestry, not Cuban.
5. An ignorant, lazy but honest error: The captain flattered Trump by telling him that his sailfish was the biggest ever caught in those waters, and Trump never bothered to look up the facts in a reputable reference source. Actually Trump’s fish was a full foot short of the record.
6. Mis-remembered: The way he remembers it, he was fishing off Mar a Lago that day, but actually he was 1,000 miles away, off the coast of the Dominican Republic.
7. True, but Trump’s thoughts are so much faster than his tongue and his syntax is so garbled that the story gives a false impression: Trump actually caught the fish 5 years ago while fishing with Tiger Woods. Trump didn’t mean he caught the fish with Bill Clinton last week. He meant that he just now had a fleeting thought about an interview with Bill Clinton that he saw last week on TV, which reminds him that he once read in the New York Post that Clinton had gone deep-sea fishing with Ron Burkle, which reminds him of his own triumph with the sailfish. As Trump so often does, he was sharing his train of thought, in a disjointed way, with his audience. The surprising thing is that, often, his gestures and tone of voice convey his meaning clearly to his friendly audience, even though it is completely lost on a hostile press and in transcripts.
8. Either true or false, depending on your point of view: Trump was actually fishing near the Bahamas, 100 miles away from Mar a Lago, which he considers pretty close but the Times considers pretty far. The Times accuses Trump of lying in order to attract fishermen to his resort at Mar a Lago and boost his own profits.
9. True, but said in a context that creates an unfortunate impression, at least in the mind of a hostile press: After the sailfish story, Trump segues into a story about the movie, Jaws, where the protagonist shot a great white shark with a high-powered rifle (“a great, great thing,” says Trump, “and there are a lot of good people in this country – second amendment, NRA – Obama and Clinton wouldn’t let you shoot a shark like that — but now that I’m president you and good Americans like you will have the freedom to do that”), which leads the Times to accuse Trump of shooting sailfish and supporting people who shoot endangered great white sharks and other species of endangered fish and possibly having shot endangered fish himself and maybe even having shot endangered whales and dolphins.
10. True in every detail, but the Times is calling it a lie anyway: The Times says the story creates the false impression that the fishing is good near Mar a Lago, which Trump is implying in order to boost profits from his resort, but the truth is that big sailfish over 7 feet long are rare in those waters and Trump’s record-setting catch was a fluke. Continue reading