Thursday, September 10, 2009
  Reporting "Lies" and "Liars" ...
In my personal blog, I posted about the problematic use of the "lies" and "liars" frame to express disagreement with one's political opponents (using the Congressman Wilson shout last night as a springboard).

One of my Facebook friends just posted a note referencing an article from Fox News reporting that President Obama called Sarah Palin a liar, wondering if the president would apologize to her.

I chuckled at that, and then paused. I had assumed the article was referencing some moment from the campaign trail. I certainly didn't recall candidate Obama ever calling anyone a liar, certainly not directly, but I certainly didn't consume every single moment of the campaign trail coverage, either.

But the article was not addressing the campaign trail. The article, titled "Obama Calls Palin a Liar During Speech" was referencing LAST NIGHT'S speech.

Confused (I didn't remember the president mentioning Sarah Palin in the speech last night), I called up the Fox News article. Turns out it was simply a headline with a one-sentence blurb and an article link. The article link refers to an AP story, Obama: Claims of death panels are a 'lie.'

First of all, rewriting headlines to AP stories is hardly an uncommon occurrence. In the newsroom, editor often rewrite headlines to localize the story, conserve space, or any of a number of other reasons. But this is more than merely economizing words. This is a direct reversal of the statement. The AP's story reports that Obama stated that certain claims were "lies." The Fox News article composed the statement that since Sarah Palin had made such a claim, that Obama was (in effect, though this point is lost) calling Palin a "liar."

That's a stretch, even in these detail-challenged times.

Second, I find it interesting that Fox rewrote the headline of a three-paragraph story and then didn't even run the actual story. Just the rewritten headline and the first line of the story, with a link to the article (the link source is also not explicated). This practice is also not particularly unusual, but when an outlet significantly rewrites a headline and then doesn't run the entire text of a story, it looks bad. It certainly fooled my Facebook friend, who used the headline to wonder if the president would apologize to Palin for something a Fox editor wrote.

Third, this extension of objective logic to the statements of others is a slippery slope. If I say that a statement is a "lie" (I try really hard not to ever do that unless I know the other party knows better than their words), does that mean that I have now accused every person who passes along the statement of lying? Where is the space for misunderstanding? Ignorance? Faulty logic? Mistakes?

It's well-established that Sarah Palin did not originate the "death camps" argument, only the wording. The original statement originated with Betsy McCaughey, and McCaughey herself has backtracked from her original remarks.

If McCaughey made a mistake of logic, comprehension, or even if she had deceit as her motives for her statements, does that lead one to conclude that Palin lied when she repeated the statements? Is it not possible that Palin believed McCaughey's words were true? How would one establish that?

And even if one could establish that Palin KNEW the statements were false and repeated them anyway, does that make her a "liar"? How many lies does it take to make one a "liar"? One? 20? 100? 500? Is it a calculated percentage of truth/lies in public statements?

This is why rewriting headlines to extend a statement to an indirect object are so dangerous in a democracy. The headlines alone spread false impressions. In this case, the headline infers that the president might appear to be a hypocrite for seeming to call for an apology (which he did not actually do) for an action that he himself appears unwilling to apologize for (an action he doesn't seem to have actually performed).

Though it might seem that I'm picking on Fox News for this practice, I've seen quite a few rewritten headlines at CNN's site that also don't appear supported by the stories to which they refer. I remember a couple of months ago, CNN headlines seemed to include the word "slammed" and "slapped down" as an action verb in headlines for stories in which no motive or intention was discussed. Particularly in stories related to the White House response to the "birther" movement.

The difference between "disputes" and "slaps down" is rather large. We teach our journalism students to adopt more objective terminology, if only to maintain accuracy (one never knows, much less can prove, the contents of another's mind enough to establish motive without evidence).

Perhaps I'll look in on MSNBC. Maybe we have an epidemic on our hands.

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