Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why Won't Political Reporters Use The Word "Liar" To Describe A Liar?

Newt Gingrich did something perfectly ordinary this morning -- something that billions of people do all over the world every single day, as they negotiate the mundane mechanics of human cognition -- and, in doing so, shocked the living daylights out of CBS News' chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell.

He used the word "liar" to describe a person who lies.

On CBS's "The Early Show," O'Donnell first quoted Gingrich insinuating that Romney was a liar before incredulously asking her guest, point-blank, if he was actually calling Mitt Romney a liar for Romney's habit of saying things, both on and off the stump, that are demonstrably untrue.

Gingrich replied -- bluntly and beautifully -- "Yes."

If you haven't yet seen it, you can watch it here. (Scroll to the 3:00 mark to see the relevant exchange.)

To me, the big story isn't that Mitt Romney is a liar (which he is; Gingrich's well-delivered explanation is unimpeachable in its clear-headed reasoning). Nor is the big story even that Newt Gingrich called Mitt Romney a liar on national television on the morning of the Iowa caucuses, which is admittedly a pretty ballsy thing to do.

No, to me the big story is all summed up by the stunned and even pained look on Norah O'Donnell's face when Gingrich -- after a delicious pause -- utters that one affirmative monosyllable, unencumbered by any kind of equivocating baggage, and delivered with the tiniest of what-the-hell shrugs. Yes.

O'Donnell's eyes widen into big blue saucers; she leans forward anxiously in her seat. She clearly can't believe what she's heard. It's as if Gingrich had just called Romney an arsonist or a child molester.

Why does the act of labeling someone who tells lies a "liar" continue to be so taboo in print and television media? When Richard Blumenthal, the former Attorney General of Connecticut, publicly lied about his service in Vietnam in 2010, the most damning headline that The New York Times could muster was: "Candidate's Words on Vietnam Service Differ From History." The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler -- one of the best political reporters in the business -- has his own column in the paper dedicated to fact-checking the claims of various political figures. The column's mission statement is noteworthy for the many different ways it describes the act of political lying -- an act that comes as naturally to politicians as kissing babies -- without ever actually using the words "lie," "lying" or "liar." Suffice it to say that none of those words ever appear in Kessler's column, either, a column which features as its branded mascot the cartoon image of a long-nosed Pinocchio. Throughout the column -- per sober and judicious Washington Post style -- euphemisms like "misleading" or "inaccurate" or "contradictory" are employed instead.

With the exception of highly partisan cable squawk shows, TV news isn't much better. I was always amazed at how the late Tim Russert, as feisty an interviewer as there ever was, could grill his guests so mercilessly, often confronting them with past quotes that showed them to be bald-faced, out-and-out liars . . . but never once, to my knowledge, using that particular word (or any of its variants) on the air to describe any of them. I feel fairly certain that Russert used the word all the time in private, as do Kessler and O'Donnell. As do we all, in fact, whenever we're looking around for le mot juste to describe people who knowingly and intentionally speak mistruths.

It all got to be a bit much for one of those partisan cable squawkers, Lawrence O'Donnell (no relation to Norah), on MSNBC a while back. After Mitt Romney released a blatantly misleading ad that used editing tricks to make it seem as though President Obama had said he was afraid to talk about the economy (a stunt I blogged about here), the mainstream print and TV media clucked its tongues a little, but basically gave Romney a free pass, with most of the ad's critics placing it within the category of all's-fair-in-love-and-war. The fed-up O'Donnell liberally and unabashedly peppered his nine-minute tirade against Romney's dishonesty with multiple iterations of the L-word, as if he had single-handedly taken it upon himself to make up for all the times that his fellow journalists had wimped out. Like Gingrich's brief moment of candor, it's bracing and refreshing, and you should watch it. So should Norah O'Donnell and Glenn Kessler and the entire Washington press corps.

1 comment:

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