The L word: Why mainstream media is so reluctant to say candidates ‘lie’

REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
PolitiFact recently named the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump their "2015 Lie of the Year."

A regular feature of every campaign season is a cry from the edges of the journalism game to “say it like it is” and call out prevarication for what it it is, which is to say: lying. Without getting into specific names — because it’s so obvious who people are complaining about — the calls are as strong as they’ve ever been. Or at least it seems that way in our ever more amped­-up, partisan news environment.

The debate, such as it is, involves journalists/media figures on the edges of the ideological spectrum “challenging” mainstream news organizations to “man up,” show “respect for the truth” and “add clarity” to their coverage by using direct, common language instead of hiding behind euphemisms like, “untruth,” “misleading statement,” “erroneous assertion” and “prevarication.”

Most newsrooms operate under a tacit rule holding their vernacular to high-school reading level, at best. So why “prevaricate” instead of “lie”?

Why is “liar” still a taboo in a media world rapidly shedding so many other shibboleths, to use a starchy, college-­level word?

‘Lie’ as a fighting word

Mike Burbach, editor of the Pioneer Press, understands the argument, but like colleagues and competitors in established news ­organizations (i.e. not bloggers, partisan radio or cable TV shows) still isn’t comfortable with going to “liar.”

“One reason I think, as this applies to politics, is that I think the public understands pretty well that this stuff is three­-quarters hyperbole to begin with,” he says. “Beyond that, though, when you call someone a ‘liar,’ what you’re saying is you know what they’re intending to say, what their motivations are. Personally, I’m more comfortable in trafficking in facts.”

“Calling something a ‘lie’ is fighting words,” says MPR’s news director, Mike Edgerly. “Calling someone a ‘liar’ goes so directly to motivation you’re making yourself part of the story. We don’t have a written policy here about the word, and I’ve heard the arguments pro and con for years. But among the things that bothers me is that it too is essentially name-­calling, much like too much of what we hear. Our view is that it is better to fact-­check things these people say and let the listener decide what is true or not.”

Letting the listener, or reader, decide is the default position of most newsrooms. University of Minnesota professor and former Star Tribune investigative reporter Chris Ison abides by the notion: show it. A well-­reported story leaves the reader no doubt who is (and isn’t) trading in the truth.

But is that too subtle for an age where responsible news gathering is in intense competition with social media and infotainment for credibility among the broad public?

Burbach mentioned the popularity of ​PolitiFact​, the fact­-checking site/service focused on verifying or calling out “inaccuracies” in statements made by public officials. And yet, PolitiFact is not a regular feature of most mainstream news organizations, and Burbach concedes the PiPress “[hasn’t] organized one of those. But not because it isn’t a good idea.” For its part, MPR laid ­off Catharine Richert, author of its PoliGraph​ fact­-checking feature, earlier this year.

And neither PolitiFact nor the Washington Post’s well­-regarded ​“FactChecker” column, actually drop the “L-­bomb” into their often-scathing assessments of political miss-speak. PolitiFact’s worst rating, “Pants on Fire” conspicuously omits the “liar, liar …” part of the school-yard taunt.

‘Why can’t we call a lie a lie?’

Wendy Wyatt is the chairman of St. Thomas’ department of Communication and Journalism, and teaches a class called Communication & Citizenship and Communication Ethics, a required course. She’s familiar with the debate; her journalism students invariably get to the question, “Why can’t we call a lie a lie?”

“I get asked it almost every year. Students say, ‘If we have evidence that someone has lied why do we not use the word?”

Wyatt explains, patiently one assumes, that: “ ‘Truth’ is what drives the whole world. All the most important assumptions about life, personally and professionally, are based on trust, our belief the other person is being truthful. Truth is at the top of the criteria for every code of ethics.”

Her model definition for the opposite of truth comes from Sissela ​Bok’s gold-­standard book​ on the topic: “Bok said, Lying ‘is the intent to deceive, to attempt to make others believe what you yourself do not believe.’ ”

Still, says Wyatt, “I argue that ‘lying’ is a word of last resort. If you have evidence, I tell students, show the evidence. All things considered, it’s the better course.”

Part of the consideration for journalists, Wyatt admits, is the high likelihood that a published, even verified, assertion of lying opens the journalist and his/her organization to charges of bias, usually from partisan supporters of characters most frequently indicted for, well, misstatements. Even veteran reporters and long­-established news organizations are wary of the credibility-­sapping effect of loud, angry complaints of bias, even if entirely lacking validity.

“We certainly teach that courage is an important part of journalism,” says Wyatt. “You must be prepared for criticism even for publishing things you know for certain to be true. But it’s an entirely different thing, though, when it actually happens. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen students crushed when people came back at them, complaining about something they wrote and calling them names.”

The question at hand of course is not so much about students and cub reporters as it is about well-­experienced journalists and their organizations, entities that long ago should have learned to cope with criticism, especially of the raging, unwarranted variety. The charge in that regard then is that those organizations — big city newspapers, TV stations and radio news operations like MPR — simply don’t want the conflict and misery of constant warfare with outraged partisans.

‘You absolutely cannot make a mistake’

Wyatt’s colleague at St. Thomas, professor Mark Neuzil, points to a couple of episodes of recent history when pretty much everyone, mainstream and fringe, ignored the taboo and inserted “lying” and “liar” into common journalistic usage. When it came to both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton there was, says Neuzil, “a pattern of lying so blatant, widespread and so lacking any counter-narrative that ‘lying’ became acceptable, temporarily.”

Like many, Neuzil is pretty much appalled at a lot of what he hears from the current campaign. For that reason, “I don’t really have an answer when students ask me about this, at least not a good answer,” he laughs.

But in the context of the Nixon and Clinton experiences, his suspicion is that mainstream organizations condoned use of the taboo words because there was sufficient cultural mass — i.e. no “effective counternarrative” — and not isolated in making the loaded charge. The level of risk associated with “saying it like it is,” in words the broadest audience understands, was low enough for the big dogs of journalism to poke the edge of the envelope, albeit briefly.

“The thing about the word ‘lie’ compared to all the euphemisms we use in its place,” says Neuzil, “is that it is so well understood by the public and so loaded you can’t take it back. You have to be 100 percent certain of your facts, and we’re talking intent remember. You absolutely cannot make a mistake.”

“I don’t believe it is an overstatement to say that most higher managers at news organizations are extremely nervous about lawsuits. The cost of defending yourself against even the most spurious of them is something they prefer to avoid. Throwing out words like ‘liar’ is like waving a red flag in front of lawyers.”

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 12/22/2015 - 11:08 am.

    Lies or BS?

    I think Harry Frankfurt’s discussion of the difference between liars and bullsh*tters is relevant here. Much of what comes out of Trump’s mouth is bullish*t – the truth is simply not a concern of his.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/22/2015 - 09:37 pm.

      Curt nailed it!

      My pappy, bless his departed soul would play it straight as well! Its called (Politically correct version) Bull-whacky! Prefer French: La merde, German; Steir Scheisse every language knows how to treat it. The truth she hurts.

  2. Submitted by Hal Davis on 12/22/2015 - 11:44 am.

    Speaking of PolitiFact

    This is the lead story on their website:

    2015 Lie of the Year: the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump

    It includes this:

    Trump has “perfected the outrageous untruth as a campaign tool,” said Michael LaBossiere, a philosophy professor at Florida A&M University who studies theories of knowledge. “He makes a clearly false or even absurdly false claim, which draws the attention of the media. He then rides that wave until it comes time to call up another one.”

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/22/2015 - 02:20 pm.

    Blah blah blah

    Obviously an assertion that requires knowledge of someone else’s mind or intent is problematic and essentially unverifiable. However at some point the refusal to report the FACT that someone has lied becomes it’s bias, and brings the reporter into the story as an obscurer rather than revealer of truth and you do a disservice to your readers.

    Years ago I was writing about the struggle to stop the Hiawatha Reroute and the Free State occupation. During the course of two plus years I interviewed several MNDOT and law enforcement personnel and was repeatedly lied to. 1) Several MNDOT employees denied ever going to the Four Oaks or any other location associated with the protest, or meeting key protest figures such as Jim Anderson. Then I came across documentation that EVERYONE I had talked to had actually attended a big meeting on site month prior. Subsequent interviews revealed that no one had “forgotten” about the meeting, and they acknowledged having been there. They lied. MNDOT employees also claimed that certain contracts had been issued via a bidding process, which turned out to no even exist, and again subsequent interviews revealed that they hadbn’t “mistakenly” thought bidding had taken place. They lied. Likewise several law enforcement commanders denied that there had been any police informants among the protesters, and then later discussed the existence of these informants with Mary Losure for her book. They lied.

    My point here isn’t to bring up old re-route history, the point is if I came across this as an independent amateur journalist covering one story, REAL journalists are dealing with this routinely, yet I never see anyone report it.

    I’m not saying journalists should start shouting: “Liar!” at subjects willy nilly, but plain discourse speaks truth to power and that’s what a “free press” is supposed to be all about.

    I could never figure out why all these government officials lied to me back then, but it doesn’t matter, the function of lie is to obscure the truth and deceive, that we are being deceived is sufficient provocation to identify a lie when we see one. At some point when journalists obscure lies with euphemisms they facilitate deception. Frankly, journalists should consider that fact that they ALSO damage their credibility when they use euphemisms and obscure facts rather then draw obvious conclusions. For all this concern about “credibility” has not the media be losing credibility steadily for the last two decades?

    Finally, this idea that journalists stand completely outside the stories they cover is an existential myth. When you choose to obscure deceit of one party behind euphemisms you bias your reporting, even if you’re hiding that bias behind style.

  4. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 12/22/2015 - 04:05 pm.

    “I think the public understands”

    “I think the public understands pretty well that this stuff is three­-quarters hyperbole to begin with,” – and herein lies the problem – a fairly large segment of the population DOES NOT understand that it is hyperbole. Instead they believe that it is all gospel truth, and others suffer as a result. When you don’t call out the lies being said about Planned Parenthood, people end up being shot in Planned Parenthood clinics. When you don’t call out the lies being said about Islam and Muslims, mosques end up being firebombed.

  5. Submitted by John Edwards on 12/22/2015 - 05:42 pm.

    Real lies

    Most of what political partisans call lies are over what are truly opinions. “Hillary Clinton lies all the time.” (Donald Trump’s view.) The true lies are ones like those from Jonathan Gruber who put together President Obama’s signature health care legislation. Just a little over year ago we were dealing with this:

    In a new video that surfaced Friday, Gruber explains that the Obama administration passed the so-called “Cadillac tax” on high-value employer health plans “by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we know it’s a tax on people who hold these insurance plans.” Americans would not support a tax on individuals, so “We just tax the insurance companies, they pass on the higher prices . . . it ends up being the same thing.” The ruse, Gruber says, was “a very clever . . . basic exploitation of the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.”

    Gruber boasts about how the Obama administration fooled Americans into paying to cover the uninsured by using sleight of hand, focusing on their concern over rising health costs. “Barack Obama’s not a stupid man, okay? He knew when he was running for president that quite frankly the American public doesn’t actually care that much about the uninsured. . . . What the American public cares about is costs. And that’s why even though the bill that they made is 90 percent health insurance coverage and 10 percent about cost control, all you ever hear people talk about is cost control.”

    In yet another video, Gruber says the Obama administration knew the individual mandate was a tax, but that if Americans knew the truth “the bill dies.”

    In 2014 Politifact said the ACA (If you like your health plan, you can keep it) was the lie of the year. I applaud Mr. Lambert for raising this important issue. It makes this year’s liars small fry compared to Obama and Gruber.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/23/2015 - 11:16 am.

    We should not get down in the sewer with people like Donald Trump and right-wing shock jocks on radio and TV by using junior-high “fighting language” like the word “lie.” That word is overused in the name-calling type of non-substance verbal style that Trump, and some other right-wingers, insist on, and after a while nobody listens anymore.

    What truth-tellers and revealers of untruths must do, however, is get out there with their rhetoric, their message, their fact-checked information that contradicts the “misstatements” of various candidates.

    In this context, I am absolutely appalled at the news (to me) that MPR has washed its hands of fact-checking. We need more fact checkers, and we need almost all news items to include a fact-checking addendum.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/28/2015 - 11:49 am.

    But really, what journalists are actually afraid of…

    It’s not just the word: “lie” or “liar”; mainstream journalist are trained to avoid all kinds of direct wording and phrasing. The reason isn’t ethics and philosophy, the problem is they don’t want to challenge or offend power because they might risk losing “access”. If call Trump a liar he might stop talking to you.

    For instance Last Sunday’s NYT’s has a story about Christie’s misleading and exaggerated claims to have been Mr. anti-terror tough guy when was a US Attorney. The stories filled with examples of Christie claiming credit for actions and prosecutions he had little or nothing to do with, yet the headline for the article isn’t: “Christie Exaggerates Anti-Terror Credentials”, the headline is: “Christie Spins His Narrative Of Security Record on the Trail”

    I think what this really illustrates is that mainstream anxiety about losing access often overpowers it’s own interests in a competitive news environment. The: “Exaggerates” headline is actually more accurate AND would probably draw more clicks, yet they choose obscure the content of the story. I don’t believe this about ethics or civility, it’s fear of power.

    Fear of power isn’t completely unwarranted, but from a journalistic perspective, as far as getting to the stories, access to power is severely overrated. From the My Lai Massacre to DNA exonerated death row inmates we know that the “truth” rarely flows from the mouths of those in power. I can’t think of a single huge and important story that flowed out of an interview with any of these personalities that the media are so anxious to preserve access with.

    The real issue we’re not talking about here isn’t the “L” word, it’s the notion that offending or alienating power makes good journalism impossible or difficult. The real question is whether or not access breeds acquiescence, which in turn promotes mediocrity and deference towards the status quo. So while mainstream journalists are being taught to avoid “L” word, fewer and fewer big stories are being “broke” by mainstream journalists. The more they preserve their access to “newsmakers” the less “news” they deliver so what’s the point? So Judith Miller talks to her secret White House sources instead of Scott Ritter and we a bunch of bogus stories about Iraqi WMDs instead of revelation that Bush Administration is lying to us. And so it goes.

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