Setting the Pants on Fire

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Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 5th, 2017, 4:36 pm 

Is it good journalistic practice to describe a politician (or anyone) as "a liar"? My curiosity is sparked by two conflicting pieces. The first is a critique of the "objective" media by Christopher Hitchens:

Christopher Hitchens wrote:[Ronald Reagan's] best diplomacy certainly was with the mass media, and [he] was awarded the title "Great Communicator" by our profession - the same profession that never called him a liar, although objectively, scientifically, methodically, it could be proved that Reagan was a liar, and objectively, scientifically, it wasn't verifiable that he was a great communicator. And you can't have value judgments in the news coverage, so he's never called a liar in the news coverage, but he often is called a great communicator - because it's unverifiable. If you can get that, you can get the ideology of objectivity, as it's practiced.

...

The clue to the ideology of objectivity is actually found in a very good by Edward Jay Epstein about the American Television Networks. The title of the book, which I recommend you very highly, is "News From Nowhere". The title is taken from an interview with one of the heads of the networks who said "Mister Epstein, I think I know what your book is trying to prove: that we're all biased". (It wasn't what Ed was trying to prove, actually.) He said "I know that some people, they take their news from one place, from one source; other guys, they take their news from another place, another source, they tell it from point of view or another point of view. I'm just telling you, Mister Epstein, that our network, we tell the news from nobody's point of view".

My impression is that that concept is taking hold, and spreading, though there have had to be some adjustments to the concept of objectivity to bring it about.


The second is a recent article by John Rentoul, chief political commentator for the London Independent, who argues that we should not call Donald Trump a liar "even if he is one". His argument takes three routes. Firstly he argues that, because a lie is defined as "an intentionally false statement", we cannot show Trump's falsehoods about his inauguration speech to be lies; we don't really know whether he knew they were false.

If Rentoul had confined his case to this specific event his argument would perhaps be uncontestable, but he broadens it to a universal rule. He writes:

John Rentoul wrote:We may not be able to see into his mind, but we do have the testimony of Tony Schwartz, ghost-writer of Trump’s memoir, The Art of the Deal: "He lied strategically. He had a complete lack of conscience about it." If Schwartz can call him a liar, surely the rest of us can? I still think it is better not to.

Schwartz’s opinion is well founded. He got to know Trump, followed him around, wrote the book and then fell out with him. He now says that, as ghost-writer, he "put lipstick on a pig". But it is still an opinion.

So that’s all right: we can call Trump a liar in comment articles? Of course we can, but I still think it is a bad idea. This is different from the point about news reporting.


Secondly Rentoul argues that calling the opposition a liar is bad strategy because it alienates the moderate opposition - those you are presumably trying to win around - and finally he wraps up the article by asserting it is bad manners.

My concern here is not about those last two points, which are (I think) themselves poorly supported, mostly insupportable, and at any rate only designed to apply to opinion-journalism. My question is about factual reporting: is it only ever an opinion that a politician is a liar? Or (for example) does Schwartz's aforementioned attestation count as factual evidence that Trump is a liar? Can we have sufficient evidence - that is to say, evidence beyond "reasonable doubt" - that a politician knows what they are saying is false?

Rentoul's position seems to follow a double-standard. On the release of the Chilcot Report, he reported that

John Rentoul wrote:Another note mentions almost in passing Blair’s fear that, if there was an invasion, Saddam Hussein might "let off WMD [weapons of mass destruction]", confirming that his fear of them was genuine.

If we can report honesty, we can report dishonesty. Right?
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Braininvat on February 10th, 2017, 12:59 pm 

If we can establish as a fact that a deliberate attempt to deceive was made, then it's certainly news of a gross dereliction of the duty of political office and should be reported. I don't think making calculations about how much the moderate opposition will be alienated should figure into a journalist's decision to report lies. Journalists are charged with the task of being the watchdogs of the political system, not sugar-coating facts for partisans. With Trump, I agree that "liar" should be avoided, because it is sufficient to simply report what Trump said or tweeted, and then simply report the facts that do not match his statements. It would be very difficult to demonstrate that Trump knowingly fabricated, especially when he is so clearly in the thrall of Steve Bannon. He may be the sort of con artist who believes his own patter and the alt-Right feed he's getting.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby sponge on February 11th, 2017, 3:57 pm 

I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done. Whether or not the politician is aware of his disconnect with the truth, the important thing (from the thinking person's point of view) is the fact of his incompetence for office.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 11th, 2017, 4:36 pm 

sponge » February 11th, 2017, 8:57 pm wrote:I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done.

Okay but the question is: is "[president X] is a liar" a fact, or a conclusion?
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 12th, 2017, 2:23 pm 

Lomax » Sat Feb 11, 2017 1:36 pm wrote:
sponge » February 11th, 2017, 8:57 pm wrote:I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done.

Okay but the question is: is "[president X] is a liar" a fact, or a conclusion?


Mossling and I have been debating this issue ad nauseum on the "Post-truth politics" thread. From that experience I have to conclude it is impossible to prove a President lied if your audience doesn't want to believe it. ;)
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby sponge on February 12th, 2017, 3:33 pm 

Lomax » February 11th, 2017, 3:36 pm wrote:
sponge » February 11th, 2017, 8:57 pm wrote:I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done.

Okay but the question is: is "[president X] is a liar" a fact, or a conclusion?


Well, I would say all 'truth' is a conclusion as are all 'facts' but that might not be a popular 'conclusion'
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 12th, 2017, 4:13 pm 

When a President (or any person) makes a statement publicly, it is a fact that he said it. What he meant by the statement becomes a topic of conjecture. His supporters will tell us why what he said was technically not a lie because of a whole variety of circumstances as well as nuanced interpretations of his intent. His detractors are more likely to interpret the statement literally.

The debate will continue until the next election. :)
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby RoccoR on February 12th, 2017, 4:20 pm 

sponge, et al,

All politicians say what they think is in their "best interest." (Which is not necessarily the truth.)

sponge » February 12th, 2017, 3:33 pm wrote:
Lomax » February 11th, 2017, 3:36 pm wrote:
sponge » February 11th, 2017, 8:57 pm wrote:I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done.

Okay but the question is: is "[president X] is a liar" a fact, or a conclusion?


Well, I would say all 'truth' is a conclusion as are all 'facts' but that might not be a popular 'conclusion'

(COMMENT)

In cases of actions, "under the color of law," truth is what the power wants it to be; it has very little to do with that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality. (In Reality) Hostile Arab Palestinians do not call themselves "terrorists." They claim that the only solution is jihad and armed struggle; therefore jihadism must be the right path. But politically, much of the world sides with the jihadists, because the altered the "color of the law."

Whether or not any given politician tells an "untruth" for which there is a consequence, depends on the political environment and what is acceptable (what is in the best interest of the powerful) by the government.

Just my thought.

Most Respectfully,
R
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 12th, 2017, 5:52 pm 

sponge » February 12th, 2017, 8:33 pm wrote:
Lomax » February 11th, 2017, 3:36 pm wrote:
sponge » February 11th, 2017, 8:57 pm wrote:I agree with BinV. It is a reporters duty to report, not draw conclusions. If the verifiable facts are given, alongside the statements of the politician, I think the news reporter's job is done.

Okay but the question is: is "[president X] is a liar" a fact, or a conclusion?


Well, I would say all 'truth' is a conclusion as are all 'facts' but that might not be a popular 'conclusion'

Well now I'm entirely lost. You say a reporter's duty is to give facts but not draw conclusions. Meanwhile all facts are conclusions. What can a reporter possibly do to please you?

Paul Anthony » February 12th, 2017, 9:13 pm wrote:When a President (or any person) makes a statement publicly, it is a fact that he said it. What he meant by the statement becomes a topic of conjecture. His supporters will tell us why what he said was technically not a lie because of a whole variety of circumstances as well as nuanced interpretations of his intent. His detractors are more likely to interpret the statement literally.

The debate will continue until the next election. :)

I looked into your debate with Mossling. I think promise-making is a particularly interesting and nuanced case. We can't really rule out that somebody might mean what they say and then change their mind, can we? But I think we're on stronger ground with after-the-fact untruths. Can we say "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" was a lie? Or is a reporter being more "objective" if they remain open to the possibility that Clinton was amnesiac? Perhaps the sex was so bad it entirely slipped his mind. I wonder what counts as "reasonable doubt" in these cases.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 12th, 2017, 6:12 pm 

Lomax » Sun Feb 12, 2017 2:52 pm wrote:


I looked into your debate with Mossling. I think promise-making is a particularly interesting and nuanced case. We can't really rule out that somebody might mean what they say and then change their mind, can we?


Sometimes, but if you read the thread you may have noticed a link to Politifacts.com which cited 37 times President Obama said the same thing - spanning a period from before, during and after the ACA was passed. He may have ultimately changed his mind, but if so, it took him a really long time. :)
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Braininvat on February 12th, 2017, 7:07 pm 

People do generally lie more on personal matters, and often are liable to feel more justified doing so when they see the lie as a way of saying "none of your damned business." In a situation where one does not have the option of saying none of your business, then the temptation is (as with Bill Clinton) to just deny. And the easiest way to do that and feel one has not gone totally to the dark side, is to bend definitions (as in, what exactly do they mean by "sex") so that one can think of the denial as somewhat plausible and perhaps nurse the ego with the notion that one is being gallant. At some point, I just didn't care any more. Clinton never seemed all that honest to me, anyway.

With sexual peccadillos, it seems sufficient to report whatever facts do emerge, and let people draw their conclusions. When it comes to middle-aged men and pretty young women, I think the "wisdom of the crowd" has a pretty good chance of landing on the correct conclusion. When it comes to what an official's thoughts were on a deeply complex policy proposal and how they shifted as it was implemented, we are in a zone of great uncertainty and ambiguity and there isn't necessarily an Ockham's Razor that inevitably guides us to one explanation. I do have some bias on the matter, which I try to overcome. Essentially, I had an odd sensation when Obama came into office that I had almost never experienced with U.S. presidents: I found myself liking him. He seemed warm, funny, smart, and I enjoyed the sound of his voice. If he'd been a woman, I would have had a serious crush. (not as serious as my crush on Marion Cotillard, sigh...) And, as Paul noted, when you favor someone you tend to put the best gloss you can on their words and actions. That leads me to the disturbing hypothesis that charismatic people might tend to tell more lies...because they can get away with it more. Fact-checkers must be immune to a nice smile.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 12th, 2017, 7:41 pm 

Braininvat » February 13th, 2017, 12:07 am wrote:People do generally lie more on personal matters, and often are liable to feel more justified doing so when they see the lie as a way of saying "none of your damned business."

"What I do in the privacy of my own Oval Office is none of your affair!"

Braininvat » February 13th, 2017, 12:07 am wrote:Fact-checkers must be immune to a nice smile.

One hopes.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby edy420 on February 13th, 2017, 12:55 am 

Is there more than two types of people?
Liars and truth tellers.

Why not make more names for people in between.
A truth bender, a mind changer and a "knows best so tells me what I want to hear" kinda guy.

I believe all these/any subcategories fall to a level below "absolute truther".
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2017, 2:08 am 

edy420 » February 13th, 2017, 5:55 am wrote:Is there more than two types of people?
Liars and truth tellers.

Why not make more names for people in between.
A truth bender, a mind changer and a "knows best so tells me what I want to hear" kinda guy.

Because political euphemisms benefit the powerful at the expense of the weak. A liar is somebody who tells lies; if that is all of us, so be it.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Braininvat on February 13th, 2017, 4:25 pm 

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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 13th, 2017, 5:51 pm 



Cute.

It raises a question. If a person tells one lie, are we right to ignore everything that person says, even if the rest of the narrative contains facts?

It was very unfortunate for Kelly Ann that she uttered that stupid remark about the Bowling Green Massacre, whether it was an intentional lie or just ignorance, but everything else she said in the same speech was true. Obama DID ban immigration from Iraq for 120 days. At the time, the media didn't have a hissy fit, so no one took to the streets to protest. Now, to (A) cover the fact that they failed to talk about it or (B) to continue the narrative that Trump is a bigot, the media made damned sure they covered Trump's temporary ban - along with Conway's stupid remark - but down-played the fact that Obama did ban immigration from Iraq.

What is the responsibility of a fact-checker? Is it only to point out the lie (Bowling Green Massacre) or is it also to point out the truth (Obama did ban immigration from Iraq)?

And where does the media's responsibility to report the truth fall in this?
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2017, 6:13 pm 

Paul Anthony » February 13th, 2017, 10:51 pm wrote:What is the responsibility of a fact-checker? Is it only to point out the lie (Bowling Green Massacre) or is it also to point out the truth (Obama did ban immigration from Iraq)?

I think this is a good question because Google's top result for a fact-check on the Trump-Obama comparison is this article, which calls the comparison "faulty". Of course all comparisons are faulty by a certain standard. So the question is one of salience - which aspects of the Obama ban are important and which aspects of the Trump ban are important? Already we are seeing why the idea of "objective" coverage is nonsense - even the facts can't be reported without a filter, which amounts to an agenda. It does seem odd to me that a general public distrust for journalism is in cohabitation with a general trust of fact-checkers, as though the latter were not a subset of the former.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2017, 6:16 pm 

And you prompt me to realise that my question, in creating this thread, is broader than one merely about liars: how can we demarcate precisely between opinion- and fact-journalism? I think the boundary is blurred. Questions of intent, as well as questions of relevance, have one foot on each side of it.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Braininvat on February 21st, 2017, 12:44 pm 

Not quite pants afire, but this made smoke emerge from my Irony Meter:

The editor of the online paper that published this.....

http://www.breitbart.com/big-journalism ... -virtuous/

...said this....

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/us/p ... oulos.html
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 21st, 2017, 1:11 pm 

Braininvat » Tue Feb 21, 2017 9:44 am wrote:Not quite pants afire, but this made smoke emerge from my Irony Meter:

The editor of the online paper that published this.....

http://www.breitbart.com/big-journalism ... -virtuous/

...said this....

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/us/p ... oulos.html


Not sure what point you are trying to make.

If this were 50 years ago, we could be having the same conversation about sodomy. Not that I condone either, but it is interesting that society has changed its mind about one of them.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Braininvat on February 21st, 2017, 1:33 pm 

Not sure what point you are trying to make.


Are you kidding me?

Breitbart runs a piece saying that no pedophile can be virtuous or excused on any basis, condemns a non-practicing pedophile who wrote for Salon...and then Milo Y, editor of Breitbart, declares that certain kinds of pedophilia are okay and really no big deal. Book deal and speaking engagement are cancelled. S--t hits fan.

I don't know if you intend to be obscurantist here, but points don't get much more obvious than mine.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 21st, 2017, 2:12 pm 

Braininvat » Tue Feb 21, 2017 10:33 am wrote:
Not sure what point you are trying to make.


Are you kidding me?

Breitbart runs a piece saying that no pedophile can be virtuous or excused on any basis, condemns a non-practicing pedophile who wrote for Salon...and then Milo Y, editor of Breitbart, declares that certain kinds of pedophilia are okay and really no big deal. Book deal and speaking engagement are cancelled. S--t hits fan.

I don't know if you intend to be obscurantist here, but points don't get much more obvious than mine.


Yup, your point is obvious. All I can say in my defense is I was looking for something deeper, more insidious.
I have to stop over-thinking. :)
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Lomax on February 21st, 2017, 2:18 pm 

I confess to not seeing the irony (unless Breitbart's condemnation piece was written by the editors) or the relevance. I do think we're approaching the point at which society ought to try and have an honest and mature debate about consent laws, without cancelling book deals in moral outrage. Russell, Foucault and Dawkins have all weighed in on this issue, in somewhat unorthodox (no pun intended) ways.
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Re: Setting the Pants on Fire

Postby Paul Anthony on February 21st, 2017, 7:09 pm 

Sometimes, people just want to be lied to. I found a fake website designed to put liberal's minds at ease.

http://www.hillarybeattrump.org/
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