THE BLOG
11/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reporting on 'Lies' and 'Liars' ...

Previously, I posted about the problematic use of the "lies" and "liars" frame to express disagreement with one's political opponents (using the Congressman Wilson outburst Wednesday night as a springboard).

One of my Facebook friends subsequently posted a note referencing an article from Fox News reporting that President Obama called Sarah Palin a liar, "wondering" if the president would apologize to her.

I chuckled at that, and then paused. I initially assumed the article was referencing some moment from the campaign trail. I certainly didn't recall candidate Obama ever calling Palin a liar, certainly not directly, but I certainly can't claim to have consumed every single moment of the campaign trail coverage.

But the article was not addressing the campaign trail. The article, titled "Obama Calls Palin a Liar During Speech" was referencing Wednesday's health care speech.

Confused (I didn't remember the president mentioning Sarah Palin in the speech), I called up the Fox News article in question. Turns out it was simply a headline with a one-sentence blurb and an article link. The article link refers to an AP story, Obama: Claims of death panels are a 'lie.'

First of all, it should be mentioned that rewriting headlines to AP stories is hardly an uncommon occurrence. In the newsroom, editors often rewrite headlines to localize the story, conserve space, or for any of a number of other editorial considerations. But this revision was more than merely economizing words. The AP's story reports that Obama stated that certain claims were "lies." The Fox News article composed a new statement inferring, since Sarah Palin had made such a claim, that Obama was (in effect only, though this point is lost) calling Palin a "liar."

That's a stretch, even in these detail-challenged times.

Second, I find it interesting that Fox rewrote the headline of a three-paragraph story and then didn't even run the actual story. Just the rewritten headline and the first line of the story, with a link to the article (the link source is also not explicated). This practice is also not particularly unusual, but when an outlet significantly rewrites a headline and then doesn't run the entire text of a story, it looks bad. It certainly fooled my Facebook friend, who used the headline to wonder if the president would apologize to Palin for something a Fox editor wrote.

Third, this extension of objective logic of an isolated statement into a moral statement drawn from independent statements of others is problematic. If I say that a statement is a "lie," does that mean that I have now accused every person who passes along the statement of lying? Where is the space for misunderstanding? Ignorance? Faulty logic? Mistakes?

It's well-established that Sarah Palin did not originate the "death camps" argument, only the wording. The statement apparently originated with Betsy McCaughey, and McCaughey herself has backtracked from her original remarks.

If, in her original premise, McCaughey made a mistake of logic, comprehension, or even if she had deceit as her motives for her statements, does that lead one to conclude that Palin lied when she repeated the statements? Is it not possible that Palin believed McCaughey's words were true? How would one establish support for such a conclusion?

And even if one could establish that Palin knew the statements were false and repeated them anyway, does that make her a "liar"? How many lies does it take to make one a "liar"? One? 20? 100? 500? Is it a calculated percentage of truth/lies in public statements?

This is why rewriting headlines to extend a statement to an indirect object are so dangerous in a democracy. The headlines alone spread false impressions. In this case, the headline infers that the president might appear to be a hypocrite for seeming to call for an apology (which he did not actually do) for an action that he himself appears unwilling to apologize for (an action he doesn't seem to have actually performed).

Though it might seem that I'm picking on Fox News for this practice, I've seen quite a few rewritten headlines at CNN's site that also don't appear supported by the stories to which they refer. I remember a couple of months ago, several CNN headlines tended to include the word "slammed" and "slapped down" as an action verb in several headlines for stories in which no motive or intention was discussed. Particularly in stories related to the White House response to the "birther" movement.

The difference between "disputes" and "slaps down" is rather large. We teach our journalism students to adopt more objective terminology, if only to maintain accuracy (one never knows, much less can prove, the contents of another's mind enough to establish motive without evidence).