Topic: Media

Jack Cafferty and the Definition of Lying

This item could be under the “Easy Call” category, because distinguishing between an opinion and a lie is usually easy: if it’s an opinion, it isn’t a lie. But irresponsible distortions of the meaning of “lie” have proliferated lately, especially in the world of political rhetoric. Howard Dean calls erroneous information lies, even when the “liars” believed them. Al Franken evidently wants to define a lie as “any statement Al Franken disagrees with.” As Lewis Carroll pointed out in “Through the Looking Glass” through his spokesman Humpty Dumpty (Spokesperson? Spokesegg?), we are all free to use words to mean whatever we want. But in its crucial ongoing efforts to create a more ethical world, our society must have coherent definitions of honesty and dishonesty. Repeated misuse of the words “lie,” “lying” and “liar” by public figures undermines those efforts, and intentional misuse of the words for political gain is reprehensible. It’s inconvenient, but we can survive the fact that most people today don’t know the difference between “that” and “which,” “bring” and “take,” and even “imply” and “infer.” But if we misunderstand what lying is, we no longer will be able to recognize honesty. That’s dangerous for any culture.

It is disturbing, then, to hear the news media play the politician’s dangerous game of emulating Humpty-Dumpty with the concept of a “lie.” CNN’s resident curmudgeon Jack Cafferty has taken the position that when a president says a measure is within his Constitutional power and a judge disagrees, the president is “lying.” If Cafferty really believes that, he needs to return to whatever correspondence school he got his college degree from and take “American Government 101” again. [Clarification: if he believes that, Cafferty is mistaken, confused, or perhaps dumb. If he is just saying it to make waves, knowing that it’s a gross misrepresentation, he’s lying.]

After a U.S. district court judge in Detroit ruled that the National Security Agency’s terrorist surveillance program was unconstitutional, Cafferty commented: “So what does this mean? It means President Bush violated his oath of office, among other things, when he swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States. It means he’s been lying to us about the program since it started, when he’s been telling us there’s nothing illegal about what he’s doing.”

No, that is emphatically not what it means. It means that one District Court judge in Detroit disagrees with the Bush Administration’s legal opinion of the Constitutional limits on the President’s extraordinary powers during wartime and national emergencies. President Bush, like his predecessors Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, has taken action in the grey area of those powers, and the judiciary’s role is to ratify or reject his conduct. That role is part of the “checks and balances” Mr. Cafferty was supposed to have learned about in junior high school, and it is the ongoing process by which the Constitution acquires meaning. For the ruling of the Detroit judge to mean that Bush “has been lying to us about the program since it started” by maintaining that the NSA program was consistent with the Constitution, that document would have to have completely settled and undisputed standards. But it does not; obviously it does not: that’s what the Supreme Court is for. Indeed, many legal experts have pronounced the ruling on the NSA highly suspect in its reasoning and ripe for reversal. If the district court judge is ultimately over-ruled by a federal appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court, does that mean that she was lying? Of course not. It will mean that according to a higher court, she was mistaken, just as she asserted that the Bush administration was mistaken.

This really is “American Government 101.” Naively, the Scoreboard assumed that no high profile journalist for a prestigious media outlet like CNN could ever display such ignorance of the basics of our system of government, and actually believe that every time Congress passes a law that the courts overturn, and every time a president takes an action that the courts oppose, that these are dishonest and criminal acts rather than a natural part of the push and pull system the Founding Fathers devised. And it may have been right to assume that after all. It seems far more likely that Cafferty isn’t displaying ignorance but rather disrespect, adopting the “Angry Left” position that Bush isn’t wrong but bad: the President and his advisors know that the NSA policy is unconstitutional and intentionally violated the law without having any good faith arguments to support their position.

Since there isn’t a shred of evidence that this is true, Cafferty’s statement would not be ignorant; it would be unfair, irresponsible, unprofessional, and reckless.

And if he didn’t believe it himself, it would also be a lie.

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