The Word the Media Won’t Use

Mitt Romney said President Obama began his administration with an “apology tour.” gave the statement a “Pants on Fire” rating.

People and institutions are frequently criticized for the words they use. Lately, the mainstream news media has been getting heat for a word it habitually does not use. The word is lie—both the root noun and the verb that derives from it. Throw in the epithet liar while you’re at it.

The complaint is an outgrowth of a more general, longstanding, and well-founded grumbling that the press too often acts more like a stenographer than a watchdog—merely summarizing or quoting politicians, candidates and business leaders’ statements, rather than independently determining their veracity. This came to a head in what might be termed WMD-gate[*]: the failure of journalists, in the run-up to the second Gulf War, to scrutinize George W. Bush administration officials’ claims that the Iraqis had and were ready to use weapons of mass destruction.

That sorry performance led to self-criticism, gnashing of teeth, and, more usefully, an institutionwide pledge to try to do better. And the media has done better, insofar as that is possible, given the unforgiving nature of deadlines, the shrinking of newsrooms, and the extreme slipperiness of the truth. One particular innovation is the “fact-check” piece, especially visible during campaigns, in which a candidate or a political ad’s representations are broken down and evaluated for veracity. Most news organizations do this in some form, and a few have turned it into a brand, including the Tampa Bay Times’, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s, and The Washington Post’s blog, The Fact Checker.

You can search these sites top to bottom, and you will not find lie or any of its variants (other than in direct quotes from people who have invoked them). That may seem odd, especially in view of  the sites’ ranking systems, the Rotten-Tomato lowest ratings of which coyly imply the word: PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire,” FactCheck’s “Whopper,” and the Post‘s “Four Pinocchios.” The aforementioned critics say that this is because the journalists who put together these sites lack gumption, just like the rest of their ilk.

The criticism reached a dull roar last week after Paul Ryan gave a convention speech that, according to virtually every analysis, did not strictly adhere to the facts. The magazine The Week published a roundup of the reporting on it titled “The Media Coverage of Paul Ryan’s Speech: 15 Euphemisms for ‘Lying.’” It quoted such formulations as:

  • Ryan “took some factual shortcuts” (the Associated Press).
  • His speech had “several false claims and misleading statements” (USA Today).
  • Ryan “misleads” in saying President Obama was responsible for a GM plant closing (The Washington Post)
  • The address was “filled with prevarications” (Talking Points Memo)
  • Ryan engaged in “doublespeak” (The Atlantic)
  • He was “brazenly willing to twist the truth” (The New Republic)
  • A “series of inconsistencies and contradictions … were woven through” the speech (Slate).

Initially, the seemingly militant avoidance of the l-word may indeed seem odd, especially for admittedly partisan outlets like The New Republic and Talking Points Memo. Yet when I read that list, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. It tells me that even in this odd and shape-shifting moment, journalism has still managed to retain an honorable and becoming epistemological modesty.

To assert that someone has lied is to say that he or she has uttered, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The “false statement” part is the proper province of journalism, and the media is on that case. The deal-killer is “intent to deceive.” Roughly the second week of my introductory-journalism classes, I tell students that two things will get them thrown into journalism jail: predicting the future and reporting what anyone thinks, intends, wants, or hopes. “You do not have a crystal ball and you are not a mind reader,” is my go-to line. It is not entirely impossible for a good reporter to write that a statement is a lie. But to do so, the reporter would not only have to establish the statement as false but also have the speaker on the record or on tape acknowledging an awareness of that falseness. A perjury conviction wouldn’t hurt, either.

Absent that, there’s a whole thesaurus entry full of useful and usable verbs and phrases, many of which were applied to Ryan: twist the truth, mislead, misstate, exaggerate, be selective with facts, prevaricate. (The OED definition of the last: “To deviate from straightforwardness; to speak or act in an evasive way; to quibble, equivocate.”) Journalists should have at them, and continue to leave lie to civilians.

[*] “Might be termed”: hah! I just Googled “WMD-gate” and got 620,000 hits. So much for trying to tell yourself, in the Internet age, that you’ve come up with a fresh and witty formulation.

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