Drum and Krugman: What is a lie?


Thrilling but counter-productive/The logic of the L-word: Yesterday, we promised to discuss the logic of a very bad word. The well-known word played a central role in this post by Paul Krugman.

Krugman discussed the way the press corps should respond to “lies” in the coming campaign. Yesterday, we disagreed with part of this passage. Today, we’ll disagree with a second point:
KRUGMAN (12/5/11): All indications are, however, that Campaign 2012 will make Campaign 2000 look like a model of truthfulness. And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do—or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault—and they won’t be—would be “biased”.
Yesterday, we said it was very unlikely that Campaign 2012 “will make Campaign 2000 look like a model of truthfulness” (click here). Today, we’ll disagree with Krugman’s suggestion that the press should “tell readers and listeners when candidates lie.”

We don’t think it’s that simple.

First of all, candidates rarely “lie.” They rarely make flat misstatements of fact; it’s easy to deceive the public without making such misstatements.

Major politicians tend to be very good at keeping their statements “technically accurate.” Can technically accurate statements be “lies?” Not if we’re still speaking English. Such statements can be grossly misleading; when they are, reporters should say so, quite directly. But when reporters describe such statements as “lies,” they themselves are overstating the facts—and they tend to get sidetracked into a debate about their own use of that word.

Partisans like to talk about “lies;” the word sends thrills up partisan leg. Skilled reporters will be more careful. Saying that something is “grossly misleading” represents a strong complaint.

There’s a second reason why the press has traditionally avoided the word “lie.” Occasionally, candidates do tell lies, but it’s hard to be sure that they have. To tell a lie, a candidate has to make a knowing misstatement—and it’s typically hard to know what’s sloshing around in a candidate’s head. Our pols are often dumb and misinformed; it’s hard to know what they’re really thinking. And here too, if a pundit says that Candidate Smith has “lied,” it’s easy to misdirect the discussion. Instead of discussing the pol’s misstatement, we will soon be wasting our time discussing how the pundit can know that the pol made a knowing misstatement.

We’ve seen a million liberals lose debates in precisely this way on Fox.

Krugman’s a journalistic hero. But let’s be honest: As a partisan, he can be a bit of a rube. But why stop with Krugman? While we’re licking every man in the house, we even thought that Kevin Drum over-simplified this question, in a blog post in which he specifically noted the ways a pol can mislead the public without really telling a “lie.” Click here to see what you think.

The press corps has long avoided the use of that word. This is one of the areas where the press corps’ traditional culture was basically right. The L-word is a tricky critter.

When pols mislead the public, reporters should say so. The use of that tricky word tends to muck up the discussion, though partisans will never say so. They love the feel of that thrill up the leg! They like the thrill more than a good win, which the L-word may keep them from gaining.


  1. I think much of political discourse can be accurately described the way Senator Kyle's staff explained his claims re Planned Parenthood on the Senate floor: It was not intended to be a factual statement. I guess it was not a lie because he didn't intend it to be "factual."

  2. Mr. Somerby outlines an interesting concept here: only those who knowingly misstate the facts can be accused of lying, everyone else is just misinforming.

    Let's take this one step further.

    How can anyone who sincerely believes what they are saying be accused of misinforming?

    For example, when the Romney camp chopped up an Obama sound bite and changed the context from Obama quoting McCain to Obama saying the words himself they weren't lying when they said "those are his words, they came out of his mouth."

    Everyone else who references the lie, the original ad, isn't lying or even misinforming if they believe what they're saying.

    As long as you're ignorant of the facts you can say anything you want to without being responsible for what you say.

  3. I do believe I see some wiggle room here:

    You can call a statement a lie, an untruth, whether it's intentional or not because something is true or it isn't, without calling the person who makes the statement a liar!!

    So perhaps we need a different description for people who repeat lies: purveyor of untruths or POU for short.

    Maybe in a court of law or a classroom this might make some difference but outside of those limited areas, not so much.

  4. Sometimes politicians do lie.

    George W. Bush did all the time.

    Richard Nixon was a notorious liar.

    When politicians lie, we need journalists to call them on it. We simply don't get that these days. We don't. Sorry.

  5. One gratifying thing about the Romney camp's lie, and yes it is a lie, is that opposed to 2000 and 2004 and even 2008, the lie was pointed out immediately, shortening the half-life these types of lies often have.

    Slow and steady progress, but progress nonetheless.

  6. Point well taken Bob.

    I often have argued that it's not necessary to prove that Obama lied to his supporters, like with the public option, or with his promise to end the Gitmo or the Patriot Act or the other promises he failed to keep. Even if Obama and the Dems were truly sincere and truly believed they needed to enact right-wing policies to keep power, it was political malpractice and as such they should be fired.

    But, the case can still be made that they are lying, even if it is a difficult case to make.

    As you say, they hide their betrayals. But sometimes we have to look at the circumstantial evidence and we can make some conlcusions.

    For instance, OBAMA WAS A HUGE FAT LIAR YESTERDAY when he claimed to be fighting to save the middle class. I have no doubt he knew this was complete bullshit. Obama is doing this PR stunt in an effort to deceive people from the truth. It's a big lie so it's harder to prove.

    Yves at Naked Capitalism makes an attempt of proving this charge: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/12/obama-road-tests-hopey-changey-big-lie-2-0-hell-reincarnate-as-teddy-roosevelt-if-you-are-dumb-enough-to-be-fooled-twice.html

    TL;DR: Bob is right that proving a politician "lied" is not always productive, but in some cases that's the right word to use (like with Obama's lies yesterday).

  7. Bob,
    a quibble I've had with your posts over the years is that you are defining "lie" more narrowly than is proper. something can be "technically true" and yet still a lie. if a statement is made with the intent to deceive, it's a lie. according to the mavens at dictionary.com, lie is defined as:
    lie1    /laɪ/ Show Spelled [lahy] Show IPA noun, verb, lied, ly·ing.
    1. a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.
    2. something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture: His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.
    3. an inaccurate or false statement.
    4. the charge or accusation of lying: He flung the lie back at his accusers.
    verb (used without object)
    5. to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.
    6. to express what is false; convey a false impression.

    Politicians statements, even when technically true are often lies of the variety of "convey a false impression."

    We need (more accurately our pundits like Dr. Krugman need) to correctly call out technically true but intentionally misleading statements for what they are -- lies.

  8. Angels dancing on the head of a pin, etc....

  9. Mr. Somerby is a former teacher.

    His definition of a "lie" is suitable for the classroom or a court of law where things are defined rather narrowly.

    Out here in the real world this definition doesn't do us much good.

    We know who is lying and who isn't.

    We can even tell when posters on this site are lying when then claim to be objective, neither democratic nor republican neither conservative nor progressive.

  10. Since when are facts not sometimes lies?

  11. Let me guess anonymous . . . . I'm getting paid to post by the Kock brothers and Michelle Bachman's campaign, right?

    I know I'm doing something right when the Democratic partisans start accusing me of being a secret Republican.

    But you did manage to get the first part of your comment right . . . .

  12. But Bob's point isn't that we should let "liars" off the hook because what they said is "technically accurate." What Bob is saying is that we need to identify them as misleading and distorting... If we call them "liars," then the conversation turns to whether or not they technically "lied," which redirects the discussion (and, not coincidentally, allows the "liars" to complain about persecution).

    If anything, Bob is complaining because the national press corps does let the "liars" off the hook, but that calling them "liars" won't fix the problem.