UK paperback


Massaging lies in the media

Following on from Misspeak, a phenomenon in which public figures attribute their false claims to momentary biological dysfunction, we should also keep in mind the supine way in which the media itself refuses to call liars liars. Consider the hyper-delicate way in which the LA Times reports today the liar Dick Cheney lying, earlier this week, about Iran’s nuclear-enrichment programme. The report is headlined “Cheney disputes Iran’s nuclear goals“, although the story is actually about how Cheney lied about Iran’s nuclear goals. This is made clear through a series of marvellously tortuous circumlocutions:

Vice President Dick Cheney charged in an interview released Tuesday that Iran is trying to develop weapons-grade uranium, though international inspectors and U.S. intelligence services have not found evidence of such an effort. […]

“Obviously, they’re also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels,” Cheney said […]

In its latest report, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, says Iran is enriching uranium at its plant in Natanz to less than 3.8%, which is the level necessary to create fuel for a civilian reactor. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to 80% or 90%.

Cheney’s comment also contradicted the assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, which concluded in a report revealed late last year that Iran had halted its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in 2003.

The vice president’s statement was the second time in a week that a White House official has made an allegation regarding Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions that did not square with publicly known facts.

What do you call it when someone in power says something that “does not square with publicly known facts”, when he is clearly in a position to know what those facts are? You call it lying — unless, of course, you write for a major newspaper.

But the most illuminating piece of Unspeak in this report is not, to be fair, the paper’s own. It’s from the White House, climbing down after a lie by Cheney’s sockpuppet:

President Bush said last week that Iran’s leaders had “declared” they were seeking nuclear weapons. Iran has always denied the charge, and the White House later backpedaled, calling the president’s remarks “shorthand.”

Ah, shorthand. It’s understandable: things move so fast in international affairs that you’ll be left behind if you try to scribble everything down in your notebook using all the letters of each word, ie describing things as they are. Who has the patience for that? But, well, how exactly can a lie be “shorthand”? Is it shorthand for the truth, or just shorthand for a bigger lie?

Well, “shorthand” is quite a good description of the way that, as I argued, John McCain’s claim about Iran arming Al Qaeda was an economical encapsulation of all the deliberate conflations that make up the rhetorical cloud around the “war on terror”. In the same way, perhaps, lying about Iran’s stated intentions can be thought of as a shorthand indication of the continuing determination to rattle sabres at Iran no matter what the facts are, and in general of the administration’s bellicose contempt for the “reality-based community” that is so blatant and implacable that newspapers find themselves in an impossible position.

For they cannot both call all this lying what it is and maintain the kind of proper deference to authority that is part of what makes our democracies so envied the world over. And the latter is, surely, the more noble aim for a free press.

  1. 1  hardindr  March 26, 2008, 6:14 pm 

    In regards to Cheney and Bush, they may not be lying, they may actually believe their statements (as incredible as it might seem). What do you call it when someone lives in a world where they refuse to consider good evidence that contradicts their position? Deluded.

  2. 2  Russell Davies  March 26, 2008, 6:26 pm 

    Rather than being merely deluded, perhaps Bush and Cheney believe in a notion of non-evidential truth where the performance of an allegation is sufficient to “prove” the “truth” of the allegation.

  3. 3  WIIIAI  March 26, 2008, 8:32 pm 

    Well, they did start out in 2000 by alleging that they’d been elected…

  4. 4  Jeff Hussein Strabone  March 27, 2008, 3:01 am 

    Well, another brilliant comment deleted into oblivion by WordPress.

  5. 5  Steven  March 27, 2008, 10:29 am 

    If you say it was brilliant, I take you at your word.

  6. 6  geoff  March 27, 2008, 4:53 pm 

    “deference to authority” = an envied democracy. The sarcasm is wonderful.

    So to summarize, the free press is trapped in fantasyland®™ to avoid being labelled the “enemies” fifth column. A charge against which the mighty fourth estate is incapable of defending itself without entering a recursive process?

  7. 7  Graham Giblin  March 30, 2008, 10:16 am 

    “…we should also keep in mind the supine way in which the media itself refuses to call liars liars.”

    I don’t remember how I came across it (was it here?), but
    this article, by Glenn Greenwald, in Salon
    seems apropos.

    It concerns the remark by Obama advisor, Samantha Power’s, reference to Hillary Clinton as “a monster”. This was reported by The Scotsman‘s Gerri Peev. Power claimed it was off the record only after she had said it in an on the record interview. MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson took her to task for not fawning on an influential person as an American journalist would have done. In the process, he gave the whole game away.

    Tucker Carlson unintentionally reveals the role of the American press

    In one of the ultimate paradoxes, for American journalists — whose role in theory is to expose the secrets of the powerful — secrecy is actually their central religious tenet, especially when it comes to dealing with the most powerful. Protecting, rather than exposing, the secrets of the powerful is the fuel of American journalism. That’s how they maintain their access to and good relations with those in power.

    CARLSON: What — she wanted it off the record. Typically, the arrangement is if someone you’re interviewing wants a quote off the record, you give it to them off the record. Why didn’t you do that?

    PEEV: Are you really that acquiescent in the United States?

    CARLSON: Right. But I mean, since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here, it’s a little much being lectured on journalistic ethics by a reporter from the “Scotsman,” but I wonder if you could just explain what you think the effect is on the relationship between the press and the powerful. People don’t talk to you when you go out of your way to hurt them as you did in this piece.

    Don’t you think that hurts the rest of us in our effort to get to the truth from the principals in these campaigns?

    PEEV: If this is the first time that candid remarks have been published about what one campaign team thinks of the other candidate, then I would argue that your journalists aren’t doing a very good job of getting to the truth.

    whole of the article
    is well worth a read. The – as you say, supine, or as I might say, grovelling and self-serving – American media are helping to destroy the democracy that Americans pretend they live in. Yet amazingly they appear to believe that by hiding the truth from the citizens and protecting the powerful from scrutiny they are somehow contributing to the political health of the nation.

  8. 8  Australian Values  April 1, 2008, 11:10 am 

    […] you won’t mind if we steal our own comment from a favourite blog where the topic of the relationship between the the powerful and the American media came up: […]

  9. 9  richard  April 1, 2008, 2:38 pm 

    since journalistic standards in Great Britain are so much dramatically lower than they are here

    Oh, that is priceless – and only possible because of the special blindness Carlson’s audience and paymasters have for events taking place outside US borders.

  10. 10  John Meredith  April 2, 2008, 2:01 pm 

    Happily Hitchens is yet again bucking the trend in emphatic fashion over at Slate. Enjoy:

  11. 11  RobW  April 3, 2008, 2:56 am 

    The sort of symbiotic relationship between the press and the political class that Carlson talks about makes perfect sense for the commercial media, where journalists are essentially just filling in the gaps between the ads. If the goal is content provision then getting the tidbits necessary to fill the column inches is much more important than actually being informative, if being informative might imperil the courtier relationship that gets you the tidbits.

    Similarly, it always amuses me to hear journos wittering on about “protection of sources” when they’ve been publishing some self-serving leak from a pollie – probably a government pollie (cf Judith Miller). The source of the leak being published is an integral part of the story, whether it’s from anonymous officials or factional heavies whispering about leadership challenges, vital to the readers’ proper understanding of the meaning and credibility of the information leaked. In fact, the source would usually be the most important part of the story not being published: “Politician and Pundit Connive to Manipulate Public Opinion”. But if journos went around saying who it was they’d got their gossip from, nobody would give them any, partly because anonymity prevents precisely the kind of assessment of the credibility of the information (by checking its source) the source is keen to avoid. Fair enough protecting legitimate whistle-blowers whose information is accurate and revelatory and who face reprisals for telling the public something it’s useful to know; but most anonymous sources, particularly of commentators, are anything but.

    There’s no real dereliction of duty on the part of workers in the commercial media involved here; as I say, their only job is to fill the empty bits between the ads. What’s worrying is that journalists working for public broadcasters persist in the delusion that they should take their cues on how to do journalism from the commercial sector (pursuing “scoops” and other such nonsense), or in falsely imagining that they are members of the same “profession” as commercial journalists, and thus similarly entitled to, for example, keep their cozy relationships with members of the political class a secret from their audience if it gets them “the story” (which thus is only part of the story). But while public broadcasters may be subject to charter requirements that they inform their viewers, the commercial media exists to sell audiences to advertisers, and it’s about time public sector journos realised that and ditched the corrosive fantasies of journalistic esprit de corps.

    I guess it works the other way too so, as The Scotsman is an ad-funded media entity, Carlson probably had a right to give Peev a dressing down.

  12. 12  RobW  April 3, 2008, 3:09 am 

    I also notice that Peev endorses the principle that information can be off the record if this is “decided ahead of the interview”. Does this work like the “Shotgun!” rule?

  13. 13  Graham Giblin  April 3, 2008, 10:18 am 

    I agree that “the commercial media exists to sell audiences to advertisers”. That is not the whole story, though. It’s the proprietors, through the marketing divisions, who sell the audience to advertisers. The job of the journalists and editorial staff generally is not merely to fill the empty bits between ads but to make both the advertising real estate and the quality of the audience delivered as valuable as possible to advertisers. That corporate pressure will result in content and a style of reporting, as well as an attitude to ethical standards, because, as you say, they have no responsibility to the audience itself. Only the ABC in Australia, the BBC in the UK and PBS in the US, for example, [oh, and independent bloggers] are directly responsible to their audiences. Nevertheless there is a blurring of the distinctions between commercial and public broadcasting for a number of reasons including the inevitable cross-fertilisation of career-driven practioners.

  14. 14  ejh  April 9, 2008, 11:13 am 

    You do have to be careful.

hit parade

    guardian articles

    older posts