The word "alleged" is used far more frequently in newspapers that it is in most aspects of daily life.
This is due partly to a commitment to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty." If, for example, a man is arrested after going to a local mall with a video camera attached to his shoe (scroll down to Dec. 19) in an apparent attempt to look up women's dresses, the newspaper will refer to him as an "alleged peeper," or an "accused peeper," but not simply as a peeper.
This isn't entirely due to a principled commitment to due process, of course, it also has to do with the desire to avoid libel lawsuits. The full name of the AP stylebook that serves as the newsroom Bible is actually The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual — and the libel section makes up the bulk of the book.
A third reason for the scrupulous use of the word alleged has to do with journalists' commitment to accuracy. Even when a suspect is caught red-handed (or red-footed), it is still possible that there is some alternative, innocent explanation for the situation, even if such an explanation seems at first difficult to imagine. (Perhaps the gentleman at the mall will turn out to be an avant-garde filmmaker.)
These same concerns explain why journalists are extremely reluctant to use the words "lie" or "lying" — even when such words seem the most obvious, accurate and necessary terms.
Take for example the recent discovery that USAID had removed a transcript from its Web site. Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post, provides concrete, undeniable evidence that at least two public officials have said things that were not true, yet nowhere does Milbank employ the most common English terms for such statements and those who make them.
First we have the case of Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who appeared on ABC News' Nightline with Ted Koppel on April 23, and said that the cost to U.S. taxpayers for rebuilding Iraq would be no more than $1.7 billion:
"You're not suggesting that the rebuilding of Iraq is going to be done for $1.7 billion?" an incredulous Ted Koppel asked Natsios.
"Well, in terms of the American taxpayers contribution, I do," Natsios said. "This is it for the U.S. The rest of the rebuilding of Iraq will be done by other countries who have already made pledges, Britain, Germany, Norway, Japan, Canada and Iraqi oil revenues. … But the American part of this will be $1.7 billion. We have no plans for any further-on funding for this."
The claim was so astonishing that Koppel provided the chance for Natsios to correct himself, but he not only sticks with the preposterous figure, he presents it as a kind of promise.
Now, just because what Natsios said was flagrantly untrue does not necessarily mean he was lying. He may simply have been mistaken.
It's not a very simple mistake, of course, when you're off by several orders of magnitude and more than $100 billion. Natsios' underestimation of the eventual costs is staggeringly vast. For it to be an honest mistake would mean that he and the administration he works for hadn't even begun to responsibly think or plan for the actual task they had undertaken in Iraq.
Reagan's Bind clearly applies for Natsios. Either he was deliberately lying — lowballing the public on the costs of the war, or else he is not the right person to trust when it comes to figuring out what level of resources are needed for the task ahead. Whichever you choose to believe, he is clearly not fit to continue serving in his post.
The Natsios affair underscores the overall lack of planning and reckless irresponsibility in the Bush administration's conduct of the Iraq war, but it's still only a minor embarrassment. The USAID administrator is not a top level official, and if he spouts off ridiculous figures on Nightline, it doesn't constitute a devastating political setback for the administration. Just admit the mistake and move on.
Instead, once they realized the transcript of Natsios' comments was becoming an embarrassment, the administration decided to erase any trace that it had occurred:
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said the Natsios case is particularly pernicious. "This smells like an attempt to revise the record, not just to withhold information but to alter the historical record in a self-interested way, and that is sleazier than usual," he said. "If they simply said, 'We made an error; we underestimated,' people could understand it and deal with it."
If I had to guess, I would say that Natsios' estimate was a simple mistake — a doozy of a mistake, but an honest one. (And I think his use of the phrase "we have no plans" constitutes a high point in honesty for this administration regarding the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq.)
Here again it is important to keep in mind the distinction between honesty and trustworthiness. Dishonesty — deliberate, intentional lying — is very hard to prove. Untrustworthiness is a much simpler matter. To know whether or not someone is trustworthy, you needn't consider their intent and you needn't get bogged down into lawyerly discussions of whether or not a particular inaccurate statement does or does not constitute a technical "lie."
Natsios, in my estimation, is probably not a liar, but he is not trustworthy. What of those who sought to cover his tracks? Secrecy and the scrubbing of transcripts are not the hallmarks of honesty, but perhaps there is some other explanation:
USAID spokeswoman Lejaune Hall, asked about this curious situation, searched the Web site herself for the missing document. "That is strange," she said. After a brief investigation, she reported back: "They were taken down off the Web site. There was going to be a cost. That's why they're not there."
Ah, you see. Nothing dishonest and no attempt to cover up Natsios' false statements. The administration is just trying to avoid having to pay Nightline for the transcript.
But other government Web sites, including the State and Defense departments, routinely post interview transcripts, even from "Nightline." And, it turns out, there is no cost. "We would not charge for that," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider.
That doesn't leave much wiggle room. Lejaune Hall is lying.
For those keeping score at home, that's one flagrant lie employed to cover up the cover-up of a false statement which may or may not have been a deliberate lie.