In the late 1970s, to puncture Carter's sanctimony, AP's White House correspondent Michael Putzel committed himself to proving that Carter had lied about something at least once, but never could make a particularly convincing case.
That all changed in the early 1980s with the arrival of Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor who had at best a casual relationship with the truth. Much of Reagan's rhetorical repertoire apparently was drawn from right-wing myths gleaned from Reader's Digest.
Some of his remarks were simply laughable, like claims that trees caused a large share of the world's pollution, but others were dangerously misleading, like suggestions that peasants challenging oppressive oligarchs in Central America were somehow a threat to the United States and deserved brutal repression.
At the AP, we had grown so accustomed to Carter's quaint idea about sticking to the truth that we were taken aback by Reagan's ease at telling falsehoods.
After his first presidential news conference, there were so many factual errors that we put together a fact-checking round-up to set the record straight. However, we discovered that we were entering a new political world where Reagan's misstatements and lies were to be given much greater latitude than those of other politicians.
Our fact-checking drew a fierce counterattack not only from Reagan partisans but from many conservative AP-member newspaper publishers who were politically sympathetic to him. They didn't want AP undermining the new president, and those right-wing publishers had the ear of AP's general manager Keith Fuller, who shared an enthusiasm for Reagan.
So, after Reagan's second news conference, which was replete with more mistakes and misstatements, we assembled another fact-checking piece -- only to be informed by AP brass that the story was being killed and that future endeavors of that sort were not welcome. There also was a school of thought that Reagan wasn't really lying; he just lived in a world of make-believe, as if that was somehow okay.
However, as the Iran-Contra scandal unfolded in 1986-87 -- and Reagan was caught in bald-faced lies about trading arms for hostages -- I sometimes thought back on that earlier decision by AP executives to give Reagan a wide berth in truth-telling and wondered if our tolerance of his earlier deceptions might have been a factor in his later ones.
Tightening the Reins
The U.S. news media's attitude toward truth-telling changed again after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. One senior news executive at a major U.S. newspaper told me that it was important for the press, which right-wing attack groups had long accused of having a "liberal bias," to show that we would be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican.
So, top U.S. news outlets -- led by the Washington Post and the New York Times -- took off after the Clinton administration over a string of minor "scandals," like Whitewater, Troopergate, the Travel Office firings, etc. The comments of Clinton administration officials were put under a microscope looking for any contradictions, lies and perjury.
Though the Clinton "scandals" mostly turned out to be much ado about nothing, President Clinton finally got caught in a personal whopper when -- under questioning -- he insisted that he didn't have "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's lie was of the type that a guy tells when cornered by an embarrassing indiscretion and is trying to weasel out of it.
Yet, the media's war on Democratic honesty continued. When Clinton survived an impeachment trial in the Senate, the Washington press turned its guns on Vice President Al Gore. During Campaign 2000, reporters were determined to substantiate a narrative that "Lyin' Al" was a "serial exaggerator."
To make that case, some reporters -- including at the Washington Post and the New York Times -- made up quotes for Gore, all the better to clarify his supposed tendency to make things up. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Gore v. the Media" or Neck Deep.]
A very different standard was applied to George W. Bush, who was something of a media darling during Campaign 2000 as he doled out cute nicknames to the reporters on the trail. Bush was treated more like Reagan was, as journalists excused him when he made verbal gaffes or he simply said stuff that wasn't true. The populist patrician got the benefit of every doubt.
That pattern carried over into Bush's presidency with major news outlets hesitant to challenge Bush's dubious claims, even about life-and-death topics such as his bogus assertions that Iraq was hiding WMD stockpiles. Even after that casus belli was debunked -- following Bush's unprovoked invasion of Iraq -- the major news media resisted calling him a liar, preferring to blame faulty U.S. intelligence.