Journalism’s trouble with lies

Why oh why can’t journalists call a lie a lie?

The question has come up repeatedly in this campaign season of depressingly typical he-said-she-said news stories — with increasing frequency since John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In an ideal world, as Dylan Matthews points out, “When Sarah Palin claimed she opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, the AP headline would be ‘Palin Repeats Lie about Infamous Bridge’.”

In the real world, even a Washington Post story that’s ostensibly about campaign lies has to resort to wishy-washy phrasing:

Palin and John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, have been more aggressive in recent days in repeating what their opponents say are outright lies. Almost every day, for instance, McCain says rival Barack Obama would raise everyone’s taxes, even though the Democrat’s tax plan exempts families that earn less than $250,000. (emphasis added)

Notice how the story won’t call McCain a liar — it’s McCain’s “opponents” who say he lies. But in the very next sentence, the Post reporter accurately describes one of McCain’s lies. The facts aren’t in dispute: Obama has a detailed tax plan, and McCain has repeatedly falsely described that plan. He has lied about it. So why can’t the story just come out and say so?

The reticence to call a lie a lie is perhaps the most pernicious example of how modern journalism’s objectivity fetish has been taken to such extremes that it’s become meaningless.

Objectivity is no longer (if it ever was) a means to reporting the truth. It has become an end in itself. If the facts can be interpreted to reflect negatively on a subject (at least if that subject is a Republican or allegedly conservative candidate for office), then they must be avoided. Indeed, this twisted notion of objectivity has turned facts into mere subjective interpretations.

But facts are facts. The interpretation comes after. And journalists should not worry about how the facts will be interpreted.

For example, simply pointing out that someone is lying is descriptive, not normative.

“John McCain lied about Barack Obama and sex education” is a statement of fact. It does not render judgment on McCain — it merely points out that what he said about Obama was intentionally false.

Now, it’s true that in American culture in general and presidential politics specifically, people generally don’t think highly of liars. But that’s reason for John McCain to stop lying — not for the media to stop pointing out when he lies.

If the facts reflect poorly on a subject in the culture’s eyes, that’s the subject’s business — not the media’s. (The whole point of objectivity was that the media shouldn’t be in the reflection business!)

The good news is, there’s been so much outrage in certain quarters about the media’s fear of lie-detection that maybe things will change. And if a new AP story on McCain’s lies doesn’t quite reach Dylan Matthews’ ideal — the still-too-tentative headline: “Analysis: McCain’s claims skirt facts, test voters” — at least it’s a start.

5 responses to “Journalism’s trouble with lies

  1. Pingback: On pecksniffs, Palin and the new Carnival of Buncombe « Ink-Drained Kvetch

  2. Damn right. But it might be easier to point out when they weren’t lying!

  3. J L: Those are good columns. Each one moves closer to a tipping point of always-on lie-detection.

    Jack: If journalists did that for the McCain campaign, they’d have nothing to write about. (Zing!)

  4. Excellent commentary Korr Values . Thank you.

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