Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why The Times Can't Call Liars What They Are

An exchange I had with the Public Editor's office.

First, I sent the following letter to the editor:
To the Editor: 
Jane Brody has written marvelously and informatively about end-of-life issues in her Personal Health columns, especially during her late husband's final illness. I was disappointed to see that in her latest column, she says that conservatives "erroneously" called certain counseling provisions in the proposed health care reform legislation the "death panel option."

No, there was no error involved. Those were outright lies told for political gain and they should be identified as such.

Yours truly,

Lisa Hirsch

I forwarded it to the Public Editor's office with the following comments:
I just sent the following letter to the editor to the Times, for publication. However, I'm concerned about how it is that outright lies can be termed "errors."

I understand that The Times and Ms. Brody might have felt that calling a lie a lie could lead readers to focus on that point rather than the excellent points she makes about end-of-life counseling, but it's seriously misleading to call outright lies, repeated constantly by opponents of health care reform, "errors."

There's a problem with your editing and writing standards when you allow liars to hide in this way.

Thank you for your attention to this.
The Public Editor's office started by not reading my email very carefully, and said this:
Dear Ms. Hirsch,

Thank you for writing.

This office has no say in selecting letters for publication in The Times. I will make sure that the proper person sees your letter.

Daniel E. Slotnik
The Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times
I wrote back as follows:
I know that you have nothing to do with what gets published.

I am writing to you because the Times's writing and editing standards are of concern. That is, I am raising an issue with YOU, the Public Editor's office, about why the Times allows writers to call outright lies "errors."

-- Lisa
Lisa Hirsch
And Mr. Slotnick replied:
Dear Ms. Hirsch,

Thank you for this.

The Times has to be very cautious about using loaded terms like the word "lie." Using "lie" presupposes that the speaker does not believe in the "death panels" and is using the term dishonestly to influence a debate. Although that certainly could be the case The Times is not in a position to make that judgment with regard to its coverage.

Jane Brody used the word "erroneously" to describe how opponents to health care reform have used the idea of death panels. Webster's New World dictionary defines erroneously as "containing or based on error; mistaken; wrong." The definition of the root "error" is even more explicit: "The state of believing what is untrue, incorrect, or wrong" is the first definition.

The Public Editor's office thinks that "erroneously" was a more suitable word.

Daniel E. Slotnik
My final comment:
The Times is a total humbug if it is unable to recognize that those "errors" were all in support of a particular political agenda.

-- Lisa
I posted this exchange on the Well, and there followed an involved discussion about which people using the phrase "death panels" were lying and which were simply in error, because they trusted what they were being told by the likes of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. There was also some discussion about whether it would be appropriate to call everybody a liar. I would be okay with "consistently misrepresented" or "misled" rather than "lied." I find "erroneous" rather lightweight for what was going on. The Times is certainly aware that there was a pattern of misrepresentation.

I am absolutely certain that Palin and Beck have legislative analysts on their payrolls, people who read legislation and tell their bosses what it says. (Your Congresscritter does too. Who has time to read legislation that's as long as a Trollope novel? People who get paid to do so.) And I do not for a second believe that those people read the provisions about reimbursing physicians for time spent counseling terminally patients about their medical options and thought they were reading about "death panels."

So somebody was knowingly lying to influence the political debate. I am also sure that some people were simply misled by the liars, because they weren't reading the legislation itself and they weren't reading the reality-based media, either.


Michael Leddy said...

Good on you for calling out the Times on this one.

If they won't go for "lies," how about "wild claims"?

Daniel Wolf said...

Isn't there some direct connection between the decline of dead tree print media and their refusal to show any bit of character and backbone in defending a non-existent "moderation" or "balance" between parties, even on issues where one side is, objectively, false?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I wish I knew. Tim Egan, who is an opinion writer, went out of his way to call the Republicans liars a few days after my blog posting, because of their failure to say things like "Barack Obama is an American citizen and a believing Christian" when claims are made that he is a Muslim Kenyan.

He quotes McCain's mealy-mouthed "he's a decent family man" response to an ignoramus, which enraged because GOSH Muslim Arab-Americans (or Pakistani-Americans) are also "decent family men," by and large.