"Every government is run by liars, and nothing they say should be believed," legendary investigative journalist I.F. Stone once noted.
That's advice that latter-day reporters might ponder as they twist themselves into knots trying to avoid saying that George W. Bush lied in his State of the Union address when he said that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa"--a claim that the U.S. government had debunked in February 2002, almost a year before Bush's speech (New York Times, 7/6/03).
Though warned by the CIA that the charge was bogus--the main evidence turned out to be a clumsy forgery (New Yorker, 3/26/03)--the White House put it in the speech anyway, arguing that it was true that Britain was making the claim. But the key word in Bush's sentence is "learned"; as Michael Kinsley pointed out (Slate, 7/14/03), "it certainly is not possible to say that someone has 'learned' a piece of information without clearly intending to imply that you, the speaker, wish the listener to accept it as true."
The idea that you can make a falsehood true by attributing it to someone else was endorsed by some journalists. "The statement in the president's speech was technically correct since it accurately quoted the British paper," said David Martin on the CBS Evening News (7/10/03). Such reporters are in for a shock if they try to use that defense in a libel trial.
The word "lie," of course, is one that media are generally reluctant to use in connection with a powerful U.S. politician--particularly if the lie involves state policy and not personal sleaze. Some mainstream pundits were notably upset by the suggestion that Bush had engaged in lying: "There is something surreal about the charges flying that President Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction," Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in his Washington Post column (6/8/03). "The absurdity of this charge is mind-boggling."
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jim Wooten was similarly exercised (6/6/03):
The New York Times gave Bush an extended defense against the charge of lying in a "Week in Review" piece by David Rosenbaum (6/22/03). Examining Bush's statements on Iraq and on tax cuts, Rosenbaum "found little that could lead to a conclusion that the president actually lied." Instead, he suggested that Bush was guilty of "selective emphasis"; any answer on whether he "stepped across the line" into unacceptable manipulation "can probably be answered conclusively only by historians when all the evidence and consequences are known."
Rosenbaum's explanation for clearing Bush on lying about tax cuts was instructive. Bush said in his State of the Union address that "this tax relief is for everyone who pays income taxes." Rosenbaum conceded that this wasn't true; in fact, more than 8 million people who pay income taxes will get no cut. Why isn't that a lie? "There are more than 100 million income tax payers in the country," explained Rosenbaum. "So well over 90 percent will get some tax cut. If he had said 'almost all,' it would have been accurate." That's his complete line of reasoning on the subject.
Even reporters who take the issue of political lying more seriously are reluctant to call a lie by its right name. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank was justly credited with journalistic courage for his front-page article (10/22/02) that laid out three specific examples of Bush deception--on Iraqi drones and nuclear weapons, and on a labor dispute at Customs. But his language was coy, saying Bush's statements were "dubious, if not wrong"; they "outpaced the facts." The subhead read, "Presidential Tradition of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues."
The truth is that for Bush, the bar on "lying" has been set impossibly high. During his recent Africa trip, he rewrote the history of the prewar conflict with Iraq over weapons inspections, telling reporters on July 14, "We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." Describing this remarkable statement, Milbank (along with Dana Priest) could only bring himself to write that Bush's assertion "appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring." The reporters seemed to need to acknowledge the possibility that everyone who remembers the inspectors returning to Iraq in November 2002 was suffering from a mass delusion.
Correction: An earlier version of this article confused Jim Wooten of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Jim Wooten of ABC News. They are two different journalists.