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Everyone knows politicians lie. Why don’t reporters say so?

August 20, 2013

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ffb065e7ed969e12140f6a706700ffd2It was Aug. 6, 2007, and President George W. Bush hadn’t told the truth.

He had claimed, during a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, that Iran “has proclaimed its desire to build a nuclear weapon.”

While the United States and its allies have long accused Tehran of trying to build an atomic arsenal, Iran has never openly declared that it wants nuclear weapons. The president had said something false. What was a reporter to do?

The headline on my story called Bush’s claim “dubious.” The piece said he had delivered “an inaccurate accusation at a time of sharp tensions between Washington and Tehran.”

I didn’t call it a lie (I still wouldn’t). A National Security Council official telephoned to say “good catch” and assure me the claim was a mistake and would not be repeated. It wasn’t.

 

The current controversy around the National Security Agency surveillance programs has — once again — raised questions about the credibility of senior government officials.

President Barack Obama assured Jay Leno that “there is no spying on Americans.” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he gave the “least untruthful” testimony he could when he told Congress that the NSA doesn’t collect information on millions of Americans.

The leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden paint a very different picture.

But you probably won’t see a lot of “liar” labels from the mainstream media. (One exception: PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” rating, but even there the “liar, liar” is implicit.)

Why not? And does it matter?

Part of the answer is that we don’t necessarily know when someone is lying — meaning when they knowingly pass along something that isn’t true with the intent to deceive.

One official told me Clapper’s assertion that the NSA doesn’t collect information about millions of Americans was technically true because the intelligence community definition of “collect” means that an analyst has reviewed the information. So the NSA could scoop up millions of phone records and that wouldn’t technically count as “collection.”

More broadly, there is the thinking that if someone believes their statement to be technically true, it doesn’t meet the definition of lying — at least for reporting purposes. On Main Street, it can be a different story.

“I do think the blogosphere is too quick to say ‘You guys are pansies ’cause you won’t say lie,’” Ron Fournier, the National Journal writer who worked for years at The Associated Press, told Yahoo News. Read more at Yahoo News.

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