Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them | Harper's Magazine

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Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them


I just finished reading the Jeff Gerth-Don Van Natta book on Hillary Clinton entitled Her Way and relived the tumultuous days of the Whitewater investigation through it. One thing that really struck me was the hyperventilation in the media at that time, while public attitudes remained relatively calm. It seems just the flip side of the current situation in which scandals have proliferated beyond count, the public is intensely unhappy, but the media has a sort of ho-hum, “scandal, what scandal?” attitude. Certainly some would see a partisan orientation on the part of mainstream media, emerging from this juxtaposition. A good example turns on the use of the word “liar.” William Safire, for instance, launched a firestorm in the media on January 26, 1996 by penning a New York Times column in which he called Hillary a “congenital liar.” Safire cited a series of evasive statements Hillary made concerning a stock investment, her role in the firing of a travel agent, and the disappearance of her billing records. The First Lady’s billing records had turned up after being missing for a year, and those records showed that Hillary had logged 60 hours of work on Whitewater-related matters over a two-year period. Hillary said her work on the matter had been “insignificant.” With ten years distance, Hillary’s conduct looks evasive and unprofessional, but the matters covered in the end turned out to be trivial. Whitewater was all smoke and no fire, and Safire’s comments wind up looking like partisan hyperventilation. In an age in which corporate lawyers routinely bill 2200 or 2400 hours a year, and more, 60 hours over two years would certainly be viewed by many as “insignificant.”

Conversely, we look at prevarications that come out of the Bush Administration – which go to things of vastly greater consequence to society – for instance, the use of torture, the approval of illegal surveillance schemes, the partisan dismissal, appointment and manipulation of prosecutors. But these rarely seem to provoke comment, and indeed we have the immortal comment of the New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller that “you can’t just say the president’s lying.” The Bumiller mentality is widespread with the Washington press corps, and to the extent the nation is now drowning in lies of an Orwellian magnitude, this is a major reason.

If there is a media source which has been keeping watch and flagging these lies, it’s Jon Stewart at the Daily Show and Stephen Colbert and the Colbert Report. They approach the issue with a tone of ridicule that is completely appropriate to the topic. And one of the best examples appeared last night, when, through the magic of television, Tony Snow was allowed to confront Tony Snow in a brazen lie about the U.S. attorney’s scandal. This is a must-watch video. But best to tune into Comedy Central Monday night (6/18/07) and watch the show on its rebroadcast.

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