The New York Times meets the liar's paradox

Caught in Trump's trap

The liar says he tells the truth and those who call his lies are liars. Greeks rhetoricians called this device the liars paradox.

The New York Times explicitly acknowledged the liars paradox in a recent headline, “New Press Aid Vowed Never to Lie. That Was the First Lie” (May 2, 2020, print edition p. A22). But the Times quickly got cold feet, revising the headline for the digital edition to “‘I Will Never Lie to You,’ McEnany Says in First White House Briefing: But Kayleigh McEnany, the president’s fourth press secretary, found that vow tested almost immediately.”

“A vow tested” sounds almost courageous. But the vow wasn’t tested. It was broken.

NPR’s misleading headline for the same story was “I Will Never Lie To You: Trumps New Press Secretary Revives Briefing.” But the NPR story fails to mention that the news secretary was lying about lying.

A few days earlier, on April 26, a Times digital headline teased “260,000 Words, Full of Self-Praise, From Trump on the Virus.” Three days later the print edition did slightly better with a new headline:  “Misleading, Boasting, Praising, and Blaming.” The story charts the President’s onslaught of deceptive, race-baiting, misogynist, and xenophobic remarks under the label “exaggerations and falsehoods.”

The Times provides two other categories for the President’s remarks — “self-congratulations” and “blaming,” which, together, were far more pervasive than the President’s “exaggerations and falsehoods.” The problem is that the documented “self-congratulations” and “blaming” were also lies, deception, and propaganda. The buried caveat that the President’s “exaggerations and falsehoods” are often “predicated on exaggerations and falsehoods” is insufficient when the headlines mentions only “self-praise” and the splashy interactive graphic feature the misleading labels.

Language makes a difference.

For Trump, lying is not a means of hiding a policy: it is the policy. Every word he says is false, including ands and buts (to adapt Mary McCarthy’s piquant quip).

They say sleeping dogs don’t lie. But Trump’s lies never sleep. He’s a dog with a master’s trick: throwing bones but never retrieving them.  It is time to stop running after the bones, even if is to report there’s no meat on them. 

I realize the fear of the Times and NPR of sounding adversarial rather than factual, but that leads them straight to Trump’s trap. Politeness in the face of mania fuels the mania.

The goose-steppers are goosed by the lies of the Gooser-in-Chief.  

Goosing the lies gooses the goosed, turning us into sitting ganders.  


The Times declined to publish much abbreviated version of this commentary, sent as a letter to the editor.