Calling a Lie a Lie  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2011

Calling a Lie a Lie   

When something is clearly false, journalists shouldn’t be bashful about pointing it out. Wed., November 30, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


So should journalists brand a lie a lie?

This should not be a tough call: Of course they should.

The issue is very much in the air now in the wake of Mitt Romney's completely duplicitous ad about President Barack Obama.

The "Believe in America" ad shows Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."

What Obama really said was, "Senator [John] McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.' "

This is a completely cynical distortion of the president's remark. It's an incredibly cynical piece of political mischief. It needs to be called out.

Arianna Huffington used the ad – and the way it was covered – to shine a light on what she sees as the media's reluctance to say something is flat-out wrong or dishonest, preferring instead to focus on inside baseball.

"This ad isn't about the economy―it's about character," she wrote. "Or at least it should be. Instead, for those in the media who bothered to cover it, it led mostly to a discussion about campaign tactics. Usually the media loves to play up these 'character moments,' and here was a moment that really did reveal a candidate's character. Yet, with some notable exceptions, the media punted."

Some of those exceptions were impressive. ABC's Jake Tapper tweeted, "To just quote the last part is so deceptive it's a lie." Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, appearing on MSNBC's "The Last Word" with Lawrence O'Donnell, labeled the ad "pure mendacity."

And PolitiFact, which evaluates political assertions and ads for a living, gave the ad the dreaded "Pants on Fire" ranking – "Pants on Fire" as in, "Liar, Liar."

But Huffington's broader point was right on target. The media traditionally have been squeamish about reaching conclusions. For years there has been way too much he-said, she-said coverage. Taking that final step – pointing out that the facts make clear that she is right and he is wrong – has often been seen as a violation of the sacred oath of objectivity.

In fact, it's not – as long as it's completely fact-driven and has nothing to do with personal or institutional bias. If Barack Obama or Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich released an ad as outrageous as Romney's, he also would need to get the "Pants on Fire" designation.

There actually has been progress on this front in recent years. The rise of outfits like PolitiFact and the pioneering factcheck.org, as well as similar initiatives at traditional news outlets, has paid dividends. But there's more to be done. Obviously, many disputes are not about black and white, right or wrong. When there is nuance, when there are shades of gray, the reporting has to reflect that. But when a situation is clear-cut, that should be pointed out. And not just in fact-checking columns, but in hard news stories as well.

The media's unease with calling a lie a lie was vividly showcased in February after CNN's Anderson Cooper correctly called a lie by then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak exactly that. A number of commentators chided Cooper for going too far. On his "Reliable Sources" program on CNN, Howard Kurtz asked whether Cooper should be "taking sides."

But as I wrote then, Cooper wasn't "taking sides." He was reporting.

And to fail to characterize Romney's dishonest ad for what it is is to do a disservice to the truth.

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