'You Can't Just Say the President Is Lying'

The limits of honesty in the mainstream press

George W. Bush (photo: White House/Eric Draper)

"You can’t say George Bush is wrong here. There’s no way you can say that in the New York Times." (photo: White House/Eric Draper)

Audience Member: I was wondering if you felt there was a difference between balanced reporting and objective reporting? And the thing that kind of sticks in my mind frequently is when President Bush on the stump would frequently pull out the "global test" that John Kerry mentioned in the debate, but he would completely twist the meaning of the whole phrase around. . . . Essentially, what I feel like was a lie that the president just stated . . . was never objectively reported on. . . .

Elisabeth Bumiller (New York Times): Yeah, this was an issue we dealt with at the paper because, you know, very early on it became clear that both George Bush and John Kerry were distorting, making exaggerated and distorted statements about each other’s records. And it was very frustrating for a reporter out on the campaign, when you’ve got an hour to file and you’re in three states in one day, and you know, George Bush says this—you then get a call from the Kerry campaign, the Kerry campaign people responding, but they’re not actually addressing the charge that George Bush has made. They’re just launching a countercharge, which is also probably distorted. So it’s very difficult to actually sort it out when you’ve got an hour to file and you’re on a plane.

So what we did—and it was one of the most successful things I think we did in this campaign—we got a fact-check column going by David Rosenbaum, my colleague. And he would write, you know, whenever, periodically, but sometimes, he would just, we would just insert what he wrote into my story or anybody’s story, you know, “In fact, comma, George Bush, Mr. Bush was slightly distorting, you know, the senator’s comments. What he said was this and blah, blah, blah.”. . .

Susan Page (USA Today): One of the real challenges, I think, in daily journalism, is it’s easy to have the appearance of balance; you know, “Bush charged that Kerry was a serial murderer, Kerry denied it.” So there both sides have had their say, so it’s balanced, and it’s harder to really do a substantive analysis of charge and counter-charge, especially if it turns out that one side is right and the other is wrong.

Bumiller: That’s why it’s very hard to write those, because you can’t say George Bush is wrong here. There’s no way you can say that in the New York Times. So we contort ourselves up and say, “Actually”— I actually once wrote this sentence: “Mr. Bush’s statement did not exactly . . . ” It was some completely upside down statement that was basically saying he wasn’t telling the truth. And I got an email from somebody saying, “What’s wrong with you guys? Why can’t you just say it plainly?” But there’s just—

Loren Ghiglione (Medill School of Journalism, Moderator): Why can’t you say it plainly?

Bumiller: You can’t just say the president is lying. You don’t just say that in the . . . you just say—

Ghiglione: Well, why can’t you?

[laughter from the audience]

Bumiller: You can in an editorial, but I’m sorry, you can’t in a news column. Mr. Bush is lying? You can say Mr. Bush is, you can say. . . .

[Murmuring and laughter continue from audience.]

Bumiller [to audience]: And stop the fussing! You can say Mr. Bush’s statement was not factually accurate. You can’t say the president is lying—that’s a judgment call.

Page: I think its much more powerful to say, “However, the president’s statement did not reflect the record”—

Bumiller: Or “was not factually accurate.”

Page: “Was not factually accurate.” I think that’s more powerful than. . . .

[Audience continues to murmur.]

Bumiller [to audience]: What is wrong with that? What is your problem with that? What? Why do you all object to that? OK. . . .

Ghiglione: Well, let’s not open it up to everybody in this room.

[laughter from audience]

Bumiller: But you know, it’s like my email, people.

Page: When you do the really serious attempt at balance and accuracy, it often looks more imbalanced, because often times one side is at fault, is truly misrepresenting. It’s a tricky thing. I remember, for instance, we did a story on negative advertising and it said, “on the one hand, on the other hand”—“the Bush people had done this and then the Kerry people had done this”—and then the Times did the same story a couple days later that said, “The Bush campaign has engaged in much more negative advertising than the Kerry people—most negative campaign in the history of American politics,” or something powerful, which looked more powerful and was a better story than we did. But our story is the one you would look at and say was the balanced one. Because it had a one-hand/on-the-other-hand quality to it.

From a panel discussion in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism (11/4/04).

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