Media Criticism

Who's Telling the Truth in Washington? Anyone?

For politicians lying is an art form.


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.