< Political Lies and the Press


Friday, October 15, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly and politicians – come on, say it with me – gotta occasionally lie.


PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The world knows that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Hillary Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, she had this to say about a trip she took to Bosnia 12 years earlier:

HILLARY CLINTON: I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport but instead we just ran with our heads down [LAUGHING] to get into the vehicles.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Only when video of Clinton’s visit to Bosnia surfaced it showed no such sniper fire or running with her head down or any danger of the sort. She said later she misspoke. Fibs, fabrications, untruths, call them what you want but why do media seem to care a lot more about some political lies than about others? American Prospect senior correspondent Paul Waldman thinks he knows why and has developed a few rules for candidates to consider when dealing with the press. Paul, welcome back to the show.

PAUL WALDMAN: Thanks, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, one of your rules goes something like this: Lying about yourself is worse than lying about your opponent, as far as the press is concerned. Why?

PAUL WALDMAN: There’s an assumption that part of the role of the political reporter is to kind of get behind the veneer of politics and show us the self that they are trying to keep hidden.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I would think it would be equally revealing if you knew that a particular candidate was spending a lot of time lying about their opponent.

PAUL WALDMAN: I agree with you. But for some reason, the lies about the opponent aren't taken as seriously as the lies that a candidate tells about him or herself. There have been a couple of candidates this year who have gotten in a great deal of trouble when they told stories about themselves that turned out not to be exactly right. One is Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Connecticut, who it was discovered on a number of occasions implied or said that he served in Vietnam -

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: We have learned something very important since the days that I served in Vietnam, and you exemplify it.

PAUL WALDMAN: - when, in fact, he was in the Reserves and served during Vietnam, which is obviously a very different thing. Once that came out, there was a big investigation. People went through and looked through all of his old statements to try to find other cases where he had said it or implied it. His opponent, Linda McMahon, is now airing ads that say:


ANNOUNCER: If he lied about Vietnam, what else is he lying about?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Linda McMahon, who’s associated with World Wrestling Entertainment, she hasn't exactly been in a field that is renowned for honesty.

PAUL WALDMAN: No, they do an even better job at theater than politicians do. But that question that she asks in her ad - if he’s lying about this, what else is he lying about - is one that actually reporters ask all the time either explicitly or implicitly. But the problem is that it never actually gets answered. And it’s a reasonable question. That’s supposed to be the whole reason why we're concerned about this, right, that if a liar sort of gets through the election without us realizing it, that in office, that character flaw will have some kind of impact on the performance of their official duties. For instance, Mark Kirk, who’s a Senate candidate in Illinois – he’s a Republican – has gotten caught exaggerating his own military record.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Mark Kirk, coming under fire this morning, for reportedly claiming a military award that he didn't actually earn. For years Kirk has claimed that he was named the U.S. Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year. It turns out that is not quite true.

PAUL WALDMAN: It’s not that we should be excusing that, but we should be wondering what exactly does this tell us about what kind of a senator each of those people might make, and then we can judge whether we think that ought to be disqualifying.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's return briefly to the double standard here, that lying about your opponent is seen as something of business as usual. Is there no lie that one can tell about a rival that would cause the media to stir? Can you think of no example that brought a candidate down?

PAUL WALDMAN: I don't know that I can.

[LAUGHTER] Most of the criticisms candidates make about their opponents tend to revolve around policies, actually, and they can get away with really wild exaggerations. And that’s the second thing that I wrote about, that it’s seen as more acceptable to lie about policy than it is to lie about personal matters. And that can apply, to some degree, whether you’re talking about your opponent’s policies or your own policies. Part of it has to do with the fact that people who are covering campaigns aren't necessarily policy experts. They're more interested in sort of strategic questions – who’s going to win, what do the polls say. They seem to be less interested in delving into those details to say that, you know, this candidate’s tax plan is really just a parade of deceptions, and that should tell us something about what his tax policy is going to be like, if he ought to get elected.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you’re saying is that the media have less expertise to evaluate a policy charge, and anyone is an expert when it comes to personal matters. But, I mean, you’re not excusing it on those grounds, right?

PAUL WALDMAN: Oh, absolutely not, [BROOKE LAUGHS] quite the contrary. Perhaps the lies about policy are the ones that are more consequential. For instance, in the health care debate that just happened, Sarah Palin came out and said that the Affordable Care Act included a provision for death panels that might condemn her disabled child to death. Now, that was a lie, and it was an extremely pernicious one that had definite effects. The provision in question, which did nothing of the sort but actually could have been valuable in helping people plan end-of-life care, that provision got removed from the bill amid all the controversy, and that whole death panel argument almost brought down the whole bill. But what we didn't see was a big discussion about, well, you know, if Sarah Palin lied about that what other kinds of lies would she tell? Those sort of questions don't really get asked. When you tell a lie about policy, the discussion tends to revolve around what you did. Was that over the line? When you lie about a personal matter about yourself, the question that gets asked is not what did he do, but who is he?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example of a president who paid a higher price for a personal lie than for a policy lie.

PAUL WALDMAN: Well, let's take the contrast between Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. We all know that Vietnam brought down Johnson’s presidency, but when we think about him, we think about him prowling the corridors of the White House at night brooding about Vietnam and it ultimately being the reason that he decided not to run for reelection, even though it’s widely understood that he told the American public many, many things about how the war was going that were false.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: It is my duty to the American people to report that renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas and the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply.

PAUL WALDMAN: The dominant remembrance that we have of Johnson is not that he was a liar. Nixon, on the other hand, near the end of Watergate, came out, looked into the cameras and said:

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.

PAUL WALDMAN: He told the public a lie, not about what he had done or what he hadn't done, about what a policy was. He made that statement about who he was, and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s sort of burned into our memory about Nixon. And it ties in with this kind of general theme of all political coverage, but especially coverage of campaigns, which is that the most important thing is character, that you’re not voting for a set of policies, a set of votes on bills but that you’re voting for a human being, and the most important thing to know is whether they embody those kinds of personal virtues that supposedly go all the way back to George Washington. When reporters are going to say things like, this statement that the candidate made raises questions, the questions that are most relevant to what they're going to do in that office that they're running for are the ones that should be focused on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re asking them to focus on the relevant.

PAUL WALDMAN: It’s a tall order, I know.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL WALDMAN: Goes against every instinct [LAUGHS] they have.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Waldman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.


Paul Waldman

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Brooke Gladstone