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.