The speaker was a TV news type for whom I have great respect, a “house cat” who makes the gears turn in a newsroom while we “alley cats” — eg. reporters and photographers — gather the material used to fill newscasts.
The subject was a fib — a series of them, actually — told by a publicist for a politician. The lie was substantial and provable. The publicist was a youngster whom I’d found to be pretty impressive under difficult circumstances, until this incident. Called on it, she quickly apologized and repented.
I had found the lie to be outrageous. The speaker found me to be naïve. They lie. It’s part of their job, she said, referring to both politicians and their PR flacks.
It’s a sad hypothesis. Perhaps my world, populated as it is with unicorns and rainbows, overlooks the cold realities of politics and communications.
First, “lies” are clearly part of the currency of politics, an accusation that’s thrown around with casual frequency. Because politicians have so cheapened the word, listeners aren’t outraged by “lies” much — especially because they know there’s a good chance that the accuser is also lying about the alleged lie.
But that stuff is usually confined to campaigns. Once they actually take office, the politician and his staff usually assume a more professional posture. This includes being reasonably straight with the news media. If they want to dodge a direct question, they’ll avoid it or talk around it. They may even misdirect you, if you’re pursuing a story they don’t like. But in my experience, political office-holders and their publicists are very careful about crossing the line into bald-faced lying. If they lie, you usually have to work pretty hard to expose it.
Part of the reason for that: They want reporters and other politicians to be truthful with them. They know they can’t expect truthfulness if they lie.
This leads to another troubling hypothesis: Reporters lie all the time. It’s part of their job.
I fear that a lot of people believe this. They hear about the occasional Stephen Glass or Dan Rather incident, and they apply the knowledge to our profession as a whole. Or they hear the word “lie” bandied about in politics, and automatically apply it to the news media. Likewise, the viewpoints expressed in newspaper editorial pages or Fox News or MSNBC confuse people and contribute to this cynicism.
There can be gamesmanship in reporting. If a reporter is trying to uncover certain concealed information, he cannot always be completely forthcoming in his effort to get it. We can’t reveal everything we know while making inroads to get the information. Nor can we reveal every question we intend to ask in advance.
We may even fudge the subject matter, but honorably and truthfully so. For example, we may request an interview with a politician about his “campaign,” when we really want to ask about the crooks backing his campaign.
The use of hidden cameras is deceptive by definition (and much criticized, and ought to be used only when it’s the only way to expose wrongdoing). Stories that use them only contribute to our reputations as a profession that is slippery and evasive.
So in pursuit of the truth, reporters may withhold information as part of the newsgathering process. If questioned by somebody trying to conceal the truth, the reporter may resort to the same type of evasion used by publicists trying to steer the questioner away.
Gamesmanship is part of the job. But flat-out lying is out-of-bounds. It’s dishonorable and it’s unprofessional– whether the liar is a reporter, a newsmaker, or a publicist.
So no, they don’t lie all the time. It’s not part of their job.
And in my next post, I would like to introduce you to Clyde, my personal unicorn.