Misleading at best …
On our sister site yesterday, David Gelber called readers attention to a piece by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books in which Danner writes that “Never in my experience has frank mendacity so dominated our public life.”
(The piece is actually an edited version of a recent commencement address.)
There was a good example of the point on the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post, in an article by Dan Eggen and Julie Tate.
The upshot of the piece is fairly straightforward. In the push for the renewal of the Patriot Act, the president and other administration officials have been publicly and volubly claiming that the administration’s tough anti-terrorism tactics have resulted in some 400 terrorism-related indictments, with more than half of those leading to convictions.
Only, as Eggen and Tate point out, that’s not true.
The president is telling people his administration has nabbed some 400 terrorists. But actually the overwhelming majority of the cases don’t involve terrorists in any way. They’re people who got swept up in this or that terrorist investigation and then got nabbed for some immigration violation or false statement to investigators.
In the words of the Post: “Among all the people charged as a result of terrorism probes in the three years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, The Post found no demonstrated connection to terrorism or terrorist groups for 180 of them.” Most of the remainder had nothing to do with al Qaida but were rather narco-traffickers, Palestinians accused of armed violence against Israel, Rwandan war criminals and others.
For the details, see the piece. The point though is that the president is out on the hustings spouting what in common English we call a ‘lie’. And yet the best the Post writers can do is say that the president’s “numbers are misleading at best.”
This isn’t so much a criticism of the writers who wrote a thorough and important piece, or even the Post which placed it on A1.
But it does illustrate on aspect of Danner’s point: Public mendacity, statements meant to deceive the public on matters of great import, have become so commonplace that they now barely hold any capacity to shock. And the best journalism can do is issue anemic phrases like “misleading at best.”
A phrase which is, in this case, itself misleading at best.