Media Criticism

Who's Telling the Truth in Washington? Anyone?

For politicians lying is an art form.

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If you are among the small cohort of Americans who want to know what is really going on—rather than simply wanting more ammunition to support your preferred political team—then you have a problem: It's hard to know who is telling the truth.

Hardly a stunning new insight. But it bears down with more weight now, because the public is confronted with competing narratives from what an English professor would call two unreliable narrators: the press and the Trump administration.

Take the press first. It's well known that, with a few salient exceptions, the media tilt heavily to the left. That tilt shows up in decisions about what subjects merit scrutiny, how much scrutiny they deserve, and the tone of that scrutiny. Some of the decisions are conscious, some less so. (Nobody ever issued a newsroom memo stipulating that stories should sometimes call the NRA "the gun lobby" but must never call NARAL "the abortion lobby." It just happens.)

But even if you set political slant aside, the media sometimes get stories badly wrong. Think of Dan Rather's "fake but accurate" memos about George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. Or Rolling Stone's retracted cover story about a rape at U.Va. Or CNN's retracted story about how the U.S. military used sarin gas against defectors. Or The New York Times' reporting on Saddam Hussein's purported weapons of mass destruction—reporting The Times eventually recanted. Partly. Sort of. With qualifications and so on.

That combination of ideological slant and human fallibility gives Republicans reason to be skeptical of the press. So doubt is a natural reaction when a long train of allegations against Donald Trump, based largely on unnamed sources and unseen memos, dominates the headlines.

Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn't lie to your face. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.

Politicians and their henchmen do. All the time.

At this writing, the most recent case in point involves House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. At a meeting of Republican congressional leaders last June, McCarthy said, "There's two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." (Dana Rohrabacher is a Republican congressman from California.) House Speaker Paul Ryan swore those present to secrecy, but the remark was caught on tape.

Asked about the comment on Wednesday, Brendan Buck—a spokesman for Ryan—said it "never happened." McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said the very idea that his boss would make such a comment "is absurd and false."

Reporters then told the spokesmen the comment was on tape. "This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor," Buck said. Sparks agreed, calling it "a failed attempt at humor."

As lies go those are venial sins, not mortal ones. Officials are guilty of far worse falsehoods—some of which are now infamous:

  • "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," Bill Clinton said in a televised public statement. Clinton also was fined $90,000 for lying under oath in a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones.
  • Hillary Clinton lied early and often about her emails. Then she lied about lying: After FBI director James Comey's testimony before Congress exposed her lies, Clinton claimed on TV that "Director Comey said that my answers were truthful."
  • In 2013, as director of national intelligence, James Clapper was asked whether the National Security Agency was collecting "any type of data at all" on American citizens. Under oath, Clapper answered, "No sir," and "not wittingly." The revelations by Edward Snowden later revealed those statements to be egregiously false.
  • Ronald Reagan swore to the American people that his administration did not trade arms for hostages in the Iran/Contra scandal. He was later forced to concede, "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."

The list could run on and on without ever getting into murkier questions, such as: Was George H.W. Bush lying when he said "read my lips: no new taxes"—or did he really mean it at the time? Was Barack Obama lying when he said, "if you like (the health care plan) you have, you can keep it"—or did he simply not realize he could never keep that promise?

For the sheer frequency and magnitude of falsehoods, though, nobody can come close to Donald Trump. He, his spokespeople, and members of his administration lie so badly about so many things—and so many that are checkable—it is almost funny. From claims about the size of his inaugural crowd to his recent assertion that he coined the decades-old economic term "prime the pump," the president is a geyser of untruths. (One count puts the tally for his first 100 days alone at 492 "false or misleading" claims.)

So if you're trying sincerely to separate fact from fiction in the current climate, don't supinely accept the truth of any story that gets published. But don't automatically assume it's wrong, either—especially if somebody in power wants you to.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. “Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.”

    Well, that’s a steaming pile of bogus, but fortunately Reason isn’t “establishment press”, so I’ll let you slide with just a warning.

    1. So Rather was not lying, he was just a credulous rube.

      Wait,…how is that better?

    2. The whole Trump “Russia scandal” is nothing but “a steaming pile of bogus”, and the newspapers and news shows are running with it, so what does A. Barton Hinkle imagine he’s saying?

      And compare that with Trump’s “lie” that he invented the phrase, “priming the pump”? Now if you read the interview http://www.economist.com/Trumptranscript it’s quite clear that Trump isn’t lying. He really believes that he just came up with the economic application of the phrase, and he’s quite proud of himself. Admittedly, this is ridiculous. But he’s not lying, he’s just making a fool of himself with a silly lapse of memory and good sense. It’s Hinkle who’s lying about what happened. And he red-links to a WaPo opinion piece criticizing Trump’s tax plan rather than The Economist interview, why? It’s headline includes the aforementioned lie about Trump, but that’s hardly enough reason to link to it. It is, btw, an opinion piece that defends its thesis that the Obama recovery doesn’t need any help with the steaming pile of bogus that is the official unemployment rate while mentioning the labor participation rate not at all.

      I call bs on the whole article. It’s not that hard to tell who’s telling the truth. If their lips are moving they’re lying. And that definately includes A. Barton Hinkle.

      1. I also took a gander at Hinkle’s list of “false or misleading” claims, which turns out to come from the WaPo again. Here’s one:

        “false or misleading” claim: After decades of unending illegal immigration and mass uncontrolled entry, we’ve turned the tide as never before ? illegal border-crossings are down 73 percent.”

        WaPo spin: “Trump is wrong to refer to “unending illegal immigration and mass uncontrolled entry” as Illegal immigration has been declining in general for years. He refers to the decline in apprehensions from December through March, which was 72 percent. Trump’s rhetoric certainly has contributed to a decline in traffic along the border, but it’s unclear how long the trend will last.”

        So what is being said here? Immigration and mass uncontrolled entry WEREN’T unending before Trump bedcasuse it was allegedly “declining in general”? and that’s close enough to “ending” to countr as “ending” for the WaPo? And Trump is being “false or misleading” to say “we’ve turned the tide” because, hey, the WaPo isn’t conceding defeat on that front?

        “Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus”? Really?

  2. Drug addiction is a symptom of PTSD. How many people know that?

    Thank your MSM.

  3. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.

    1. Well thanks for cutting of my actual comment, you nutty squirrels.

      1. It’s pretty hilarious as is.

  4. don’t supinely accept the truth of any story that gets published. But don’t automatically assume it’s wrong, either

    Trust no one.

    1. Supine Acceptance of the Truth would be a pretty good name for political punk band.

      1. “Supine Acceptance of the Truth”

        For decades that was the common advice to rape victims.

      2. political punk band

        Is there any other kind?

  5. True and false is a false binary choice. There’s a range of terminological inexactitude, creative interpretation, omission of contrary facts, willful obfuscation, technically true, implying without stating, loaded language, shifting the focus of the narrative, and a whole host of other ways to mislead without actually lying. If I claim I have a tape of Trump screwing a goat, is it a lie if somebody reports on Trump’s alleged involvement in goat-screwing?

    Just look at CNN’s coverage of Hillary’s server – they regularly reported on the subject, but the biggest part of it as far as I could tell was always on how the GOP was using this as a partisan political attack issue, suggesting without actually saying that this was just a bunch of nonsense the GOP invented as a way to unfairly smear Hillary. CNN could just as easily cover the Trump/Russia thing the same way, constantly pointing out that the accusations are mostly coming from the Dems with no hard evidence to support the charges. (Which is also – surprise, surprise – exactly how they cover any news of calls for “voter fraud” investigations.)

    1. On top? of all that, Rolling Stone (and its reporter) did know their story was weakly sourced, and that their source was dodgy. Dan Rather should have known his source was bogus. And, of course, Jayson Blair absolutely knew his stories were fiction. Hinkle’s claim that mainstream news doesn’t run with knowingly bogus stories is the kind of whopper he expects us to think only politicians perpetrate.

      1. Not to go too far back into history, but the producers for NBC’s 20/20 rigged a gas tank on a GM pickup truck to demonstrate that these gas tanks had a propensity to, um, blow up. They sure as shit knew it was a lie.

        1. Yeah, the “the media sometimes get stories badly wrong” followed by several examples of completely, totally fabricated stories makes me wonder what exactly “the story” is that they got “badly wrong”. Everybody knows George Bush is a criminal but Rather didn’t actually have proof, widespread rape culture is a real thing but Rolling Stone didn’t actually have proof, the US military regularly violates the Geneva Convention but CNN didn’t actually have proof? Take away those things that weren’t true and there’s not even a story there, not a story badly told.

          1. Got to cover for each other, otherwise no party invites.

  6. I honestly don’t think Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan knowingly lied about anything. The comment was one light-hearted off-the-cuff joke a year ago, clearly a joke to anybody listening to the thing. If a reporter asks “Did you say you think Putin is paying Trump?”, you don’t think of that one time you made a joke about it. It is the least scandalous “lie” I have ever heard in Washington. WaPo was incredibly disingenuous and dishonest about the whole thing, which goes right back to the first observation about the media.

    Also, Trump does indeed lie more often than pretty much everybody ever, but the vast majority of those lies are about stupid, meaningless things like crowd sizes. Easily mockable and clearly indicative of his terrible personality, but not threatening or sinister. Those insidious types of intentional lies are far more frequently found in typical politicians like Obama and Hillary.

  7. Wait. Did you just link to the WaPo for an analysis of Trump’s honesty?

    1. He linked to the WaPo’s count of Trump “lies”, as prime an example of “a steaming pile of [the Washington Post’s] bogus” droppings as can be found on the web.

  8. I lack critical thinking skills, so I just automatically trust these people instead of those people. Those people…

  9. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.

    Newspapers will also not verify their stories, lest they discover they are steaming piles of bogus and thus have to retract them. This is the new journalism. If it sounds true, lead with it.

    Liberals have always know this about Fox News. Conservatives have always known this about Mainstream Media. But neither side recognizes it for their own side. “Fake news” isn’t something new. “Fake news” is stuff that doesn’t fit the narrative. It might be false, it might be true, but it if doesn’t follow the narrative then it’s fake. No one cares about the truth.

    1. It is absolutely the narrative manipulation that is the problem in the press, not outright lies themselves. A black separatist went on a shooting spree in Fresno a few weeks ago, killing three white people while actively avoiding killing non-whites. It was in the news for a few hours, and briefly talked about the next day. There were no politicians making statements. There were no calls for a “national discussion” about race relations. Compare that to how news about some white woman in Walmart who said something racist is reported and distributed through the internet.

      When people see these obvious patterns, they wind up going to Breitbart and read their equally dishonest and narrative-setting version of news.

  10. RE: Who’s Telling the Truth in Washington? Anyone?

    It depends on what you mean “is” is.

  11. Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face.

    BWAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!1!!!!!!1!1111!!!!!!! Yeah, right.

  12. …his recent assertion that he coined the decades-old economic term “prime the pump,”…

    I’m still hoping that one of these days he’ll claim that he invented the question mark. And then accuse chestnuts of being lazy.

  13. “Even if you set political slant aside, the media sometimes get stories badly wrong…”

    “Russia Hacks Election, Causes Clinton to Lose!”
    Sorta like that?

  14. At this writing, the most recent case in point involves House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. At a meeting of Republican congressional leaders last June, McCarthy said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” (Dana Rohrabacher is a Republican congressman from California.) House Speaker Paul Ryan swore those present to secrecy, but the remark was caught on tape.

    Asked about the comment on Wednesday, Brendan Buck?a spokesman for Ryan?said it “never happened.” McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said the very idea that his boss would make such a comment “is absurd and false.”

    Reporters then told the spokesmen the comment was on tape. “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor,” Buck said. Sparks agreed, calling it “a failed attempt at humor.”

    Oh dear.

    He forgot a throwaway joke.

    Must be a cover-up.

    So, if I go back a year or so and cite a quote — would you be able to say, without looking, whether it came from you or not? I’m guessing no.

  15. “Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.”

    Lolwut? The establishment press misrepresents nearly everything, either through outright omission of contrary facts or through the utilization of terms designed to imply the existence of facts. I’d say most people who read/visit Reason is because its journalists (if they want to be called such a thing) do a relatively decent job of hedging their conclusions.

    1. “The establishment press misrepresents nearly everything, either through outright omission of contrary facts or through the utilization of terms designed to imply the existence of facts.”

      Indeed. It’s the parameters they place on their “content” to arbitrarily stay within the “acceptable” discussion. Talking heads screaming at guests just gives an illusion of a wide range of opinion as well.

      At the end of the day, the establishment press are just businesses who sell an audience to advertisers, that do little more than operate as a PR arm for the government. The “content” cost is just an investment in the product they sell.


  16. “Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face.”

    Uhh…no…they absolutely do. The fact this came immediately after a paragraph talking about the Press doing exactly this thing is all the more baffling.

  17. The establishment press definitely has it’s slant to the news and it’s sloppy reporting. However, it makes some attempts to find evidence for it’s statements at least most of the time.

    Politicians and particularly the Trump White House and it’s representatives contradict themselves daily. They are bad and bald liars even compared to other lying politicians. Comparing mainstream media to the Trump White house makes the mainstream media look sainted (only by contrast) when it comes to consistency and evidence.

  18. Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.

    When MSNBC showed images of rioting in Venezuela with the headline that they were protesting Donald Trump, was that running with a claim they knew was a steaming pile of bogus, or is MSNBC not establishment press?

  19. It’s really a mistake to distinguish the media (CNN, Fox, NBC, NYT, etc) wholly from the government, as they are deeply intertwined. When they’re simply relaying the “facts” of what the government’s bureaus are saying without actually investigating what’s happening, then they have ceased to be journalism and function as little more than public relations for the state.

    “Embedded journalism” is really nothing more than a synthesis of government power.

    1. I was recently struck by how poor local reporting can be when listening to my NPR station. It follows a pattern that I can’t quite fully describe, but it goes something like this:

      Local government wants to implement a thing:

      1. Read from gov’t press release.
      2. Talk to official in charge of doing thing.
      3. Get hot takes and quotes from local activists who want the thing done.

      What you end up with is this closed feedback loop of opinions on The Thing.

      1. It is complacency and laziness.

  20. There’s plenty to criticize about the media, but it’s also very true that not every false story is a lie. Sometimes they simply screw up, like we all do. The two shouldn’t be grouped together.

    And I’ve never cared if a reporter is liberal, conservative, or anything else. We’re all something. The objection I have is they can’t understand that I don’t care what they think. I blame Walter Cronkite personally. He was the most trusted and respected name in news, and then he decided to do an editorial on Vietnam, and suddenly everyone had an opinion.

  21. I was recently struck by how poor local reporting can be when listening to my NPR station. It follows a pattern that I can’t quite fully describe, but it goes something like this:

    Local government wants to implement a thing:

    1. Read from gov’t press release.
    2. Talk to official in charge of doing thing.
    3. Get hot takes and quotes from local activists who want the thing done.

    What you end up with is this closed feedback loop of opinions on The Thing.

    Indeed. Here, my state, just last year, passed a “penny sales tax” (easier than saying % increase, I suppose) to “fix our roads”.

    This year, the legislature, over the Governor’s veto, is seeking to increase gas taxes 12 cents over 6 years to “fix our roads”.

    Nobody in the local press is asking “Didn’t we pass a tax here last year for that reason? Where did that money go? And why should we assume this will fix things?”.

  22. We have universal yellow journalism now. We should boycott MSM and some other so-called news outlets until new outlet management retrains their so-called journalists in correct and proper new reporting: who, what, when, where with source attribution.

    1. Yellow stream media.

  23. I don’t believe anything you say!
    Hell, I’m deeply suspicious of anything *I* say!!
    But seriously, folks: I’m a student of firearms development, and the media, whether Main Stream or Fringes, NEVER gets ANYTHING right. And there have been several examples of deliberate lying and “rigged” newsreels.

    1. They get the fact that left unattended and unloaded, an assault rifle will jump off the table and go to the nearest school and kill a bunch of innocent children.

  24. What we need are the same reasonable restrictions on the first amendment that are in place for the second amendment.
    “journalists” must get a permit, approved by the local sheriff/police chief/whatever to print/film/publish or disseminate in any manner any information or thought whatsoever. At least 15 hours of training will be required, regardless of current skill level. The permit must be expensive, in keeping with the constitutional level of the right. Should the permit be denied, there is no appeal process. “Assault” journalism is defined as publishing/disseminating more than one thing a day. For that practice, additional training is required, and the fees should be a multiple of the regular permit. In addition, the permit gives consent for government inspection of all records relating to the “journalism” without a warrant. And yes, this includes web posts like this.
    It’s for the children.

  25. It’s all lies. From the politicians, the bureaucrats and from the press. All you can say about the truth is that it is something other than what ANY of the talking heads are saying. The last honest man in DC was Bush, Jr.’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, who was tarred, feathered and run out of DC on a rail for being honest. BTW, he says that in Bush’s first cabinet meeting, seven months before 9/11, Bush told them to get ready for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. Why Bush hasn’t been hanged yet boggles my mind.

  26. And then there are the Trump lies… widely denounced by the press… that turn out to be true.

    The Chevy that was made in Mexico.
    Obozo did spy on Trump.
    Voter fraud was widespread.

  27. “5 So, too, the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it makes great brags. See how small a fire it takes to set a great forest ablaze! 6 The tongue is also a fire. The tongue represents a world of unrighteousness among our body members, for it defiles all the body and sets the whole course of life on fire, and it is set on fire by Ge?hen?na. 7 For every kind of wild animal and bird and reptile and sea creature is to be tamed and has been tamed by humans. 8 But no human can tame the tongue. It is unruly and injurious, full of deadly poison.”
    (James 3:3-8)

    -According to Chronology, the Bible is 3,500 years old, & if you doubt this, go to a *Museum not the Internet. The Bible has been translated into about 2,600 languages, and billions of copies printed & distribute. More than 90 percent of the people in the world can read the Bible in their own language. And each week, more than a million people get a Bible! Yes, there is no other book like the Bible. Have a Bible question?

  28. You say: “Say this much for the establishment press, though: For all its shortcomings, it doesn’t lie to your face. Newspapers and news shows are not going to run with a claim they know is a steaming pile of bogus.”

    Really? The MSM has carried many stories they know are a steaming pile of bogus and has done for years. Perhaps their duplicity has something to do with why so few people trust them nowadays…

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