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

Why is “liar” still mostly taboo in a media world rapidly shedding so many other conventions?

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

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.”

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“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.”

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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.”

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“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.”