It 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.
“We should save the liar label for when we have goods — when not only is the information wrong, it’s knowingly wrong,” said Fournier.
But Ron disagreed that the “technically true” standard applied to Clapper.
“When Director Clapper admits to Congress that he told a partial truth, or an untruth, and then justifies it — whether you think it’s credible or not, because it’s national security — he’s given us the goods to say ‘That’s a lie.’”
There’s another aspect to the “knowingly untrue” standard.
For years, I’ve (mentally) plotted sources on a graph where one axis is “honesty” and the other is “knowledge.”
Some sources know a lot but aren’t totally honest; others are totally honest but don’t know a lot. (And then there are those officials I trust so little that if they told me “good morning,” I would need a second source to confirm it.) A source could be 100 percent forthcoming — but the information could still be misleading because they don't have the full picture.
What happens when an official is given bad information — and repeats it? That can put the institution on the hook (“The Pentagon lied…”) but the individual could have acted in good faith.
“We’re told untruths and half truths and partial truths every day, and we should call them out,” Fournier said. “‘I am not a crook’? Richard Nixon lied. ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman…’? Bill Clinton lied.”
(Cue 15-year-old debate over whether the dictionary definition of “sexual relations” includes Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky. Some Democrats argued it technically did not.)
Because lying involves an intent to deceive, there’s another hurdle. Let’s call it the “misspeak” hurdle.
Shockingly, government officials sometimes just get stuff wrong. They’re sure that something is true. It isn’t.
It’s not reassuring to hear a plea of incompetence (“The congressman misspoke”), and sometimes it’s laughably incredible. But it happens.
Does it matter whether reporters use the word "lie"?
Independent national security reporter Marcy Wheeler, who doesn’t hesitate to use the word, says it does — especially in the ongoing debate about government surveillance.
When it comes to officials who make “demonstrably false” claims, “they should not be trusted in the debate, because they violated our trust,” she told Yahoo News.
This is especially true in the NSA debate because government officials benefit from “information asymmetry” — they have access to the nation’s secrets, and the public ordinarily doesn’t have the information necessary to judge their statements.
In effect, the public is trusting them to provide an incomplete but accurate description of what the government is doing in order to have an honest debate.
“Once somebody has made one of these outrageous comments, then I just think they’re not entitled to credibility,” Wheeler told Yahoo News. “It’s sorta my job to point that out.”
So why don’t mainstream media reporters use the word? For fear of alienating officials who might provide the, uhhh, raw material for their next story.
“There’s a sense that you don’t want to call them liars, even while acknowledging that they misled, because you won’t be entitled to those droppings in the future,” she said.
But calling an official’s comments “false” or “inaccurate” or putting their quote next to facts that flatly contradict it can serve the same purpose as calling out a “lie” — and doesn’t require assessing someone’s understanding of the facts, or motives.
“The president said the government doesn’t spy on us. Whether or not that’s a lie, or we call it a lie, is not that important. The information was wrong. We do know that the government is spying on us,” according to Fournier.
“His credibility is hurt. You don’t have to slap the lie label on that for his credibility to be hurt,” he said.
Then again, the most famous story about the honest nature of a (future) politician — Washington and the cherry tree — is a lie. Probably.