The New York Times Is Not Saying Chris Christie Is a Liar

Today’s New York Times has something to say about New Jersey

governor Chris Christie

. But how to say it? Somewhere between shibboleth and principle, there is a rule that reputable publications are not allowed to call a person a liar, just because that person repeatedly says things that are untrue.

Lying requires intent, and intent is all but impossible to prove by the evidentiary rules of a newspaper of record. The person’s statements may directly contradict facts that are known to have been available to that person; the falsehoods may have consistently been more helpful to the speaker than the truth would have been—even so, you can’t see into the person’s mind. Maybe the speaker was being wishful of confused or delusional.

So the Times plays an aggressive game of Password with Christie’s record—a show of directed indirection. It’s on the front page, to signal that the story is making an important statement.

The practice of coding stories can create problems, institutionally—such as the whole awkward episode when the Times went big with a story that scrupulously avoided saying that John McCain was having an affair with a lobbyist. The lobbyist was furious, and deservedly so.

But in Christie’s case, the Times isn’t exactly subtle with the cyphering. The message:

Christie’s Talk Is Blunt, but Not Always Straight


Ants-Pay On-Way Ire-Fay!

Christie’s multiple statements about the benefits enjoyed by public-sector unions and how they relate to the budget, Richard Perez-Pena writes, “are not…accurate”:

[H]is misstatements, exaggerations and carefully constructed claims belie the national image he has built as a blunt talker who gives straight answers to hard questions, especially about budgets and labor relations. Candor is central to Mr. Christie’s appeal, and a review of his public statements over the past year shows some of them do not hold up to scrutiny.

More ways of putting it:

“a problem with accuracy”…”some overstatements have worked their way into the governor’s routine public comments”…”inaccuracies”…”[the education commissioner] had warned the governor…that what he was about to tell reporters was false”…”questionable claims”…”the governor sometimes wanders into gray areas”…”embellished.”

The piece also uses “in fact” once and “in reality” twice, as it contrasts Christie’s statements with available information. For a topper, it twice cites Christie calling another person a liar, then presents a defense of the purported liar. So if the other party isn’t a liar, who is? The Times certainly can’t say.