Why Do Journalists Let Lawmakers Get Away With Baldfaced Lying?

How hard is it to hold elected officials' feet to the fire, especially with social media and recorded footage of them spouting mistruths ad nauseam?
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) talks to reporters at a Feb. 14 news conference at the U.S. Capitol.
House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) talks to reporters at a Feb. 14 news conference at the U.S. Capitol.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The headline is enough to leave one slack-jawed: “Speaker Johnson: Possible Biden Actions on Border Amount to ‘Election Year Gimmicks.’”

Yeah, he said that.

Multiple media outlets reported last week that President Joe Biden might use his executive authority to address immigration and border issues.

When asked about it, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) called it “election year gimmicks.”

You’re kidding, Mike, right?

Do you mean like the election-year move to scuttle a bipartisan bill addressing the border crisis that had much of what Republicans wanted with significant concessions by Democrats to boot? Do you mean like that kind of election-year gimmick? You know, like the part where people in your own party proudly announced they wouldn’t do anything that would “enable Joe Biden” or “help Joe Biden’s approval rating.”

I mean, it is an election year.

Let me make sure I have this right, too. You said we don’t need new legislation because the president has the power to do something about the border without it.

Here’s what you said on social media:

“President Biden falsely claimed yesterday he needs Congress to pass a new law to allow him to close the southern border, but he knows that is untrue. As I explained to him in a letter late last year, and have specifically reiterated to him on multiple occasions since, he can and must take executive action immediately to reverse the catastrophe he has created.”

“He can and must take executive action immediately.” So now that Biden is talking about taking unilateral action, it’s an “election year gimmick.” Do I have that right, Mike?

Here’s the president doing exactly what Johnson said “he can and must do,” and now it’s an election year gimmick.

The balls on this guy.

My apologies for that comment. By now, Mike’s family jewels are neatly tucked into Donald Trump’s hip pocket. (Don’t feel bad, Mike. You’re in good company with a lot of other invertebrate Republicans.)

It must be a basic tactic in the MAGA playbook. Demand something, then trash it when someone meets the demand.

Without question, Biden is making a political move, but Republicans forced his hand when they rejected the bipartisan immigration bill. Heck, if it were my call, I’d insist that the bipartisan Senate team reintroduce the bill without any attachments to Ukraine or Israeli aid. Here’s the immigration bill. No strings, no attachments. No excuses. Let’s vote.

So… the Cliff Notes version of this saga looks something like this:

Republicans: The border is a disaster. We need it fixed.

Democrats: Here’s a bipartisan immigration bill to help fix it.

Republicans: Not gonna happen. Otherwise, we won’t have a campaign issue.

Speaker: We don’t need legislation. The president has all the power he needs to fix it.

President: I’m going to use my executive powers to fix it.

Speaker: The president is engaging in election year gimmicks.

How does Johnson get away with saying that? Was there no media person within earshot to ask him that?

I’m not sure what’s worse:

  • That Johnson had the temerity to say what he said.
  • That not a single reporter there called him on it
  • The inevitable defense from the usual suspects in the MAGA media circles — because they have such inquiring minds.
  • The MAGA voters who won’t make the connection between two contradictory statements and instead conclude, “Yup, Biden’s just pulling an election year stunt to help his election prospects. Go, Brandon!”

For me, it’s Door No. 2. I am no fan of the common practice among journalists to be genteel in the face of a lying lawmaker.

Just where were the reporters covering Johnson’s little press conference? He stood before perhaps a half-dozen microphones and not one reporter called him out.

“Oh,” the reporters will squirm, “but they’ll think we’re biased.” Wait. Are you worried about biased people thinking you’re biased? Because the only ones who think you’re biased are themselves biased.

We already have a biased media arm: the clowns who let a guy like Mike Johnson get away with a revisionist narrative and who then amplify it by supporting it.

Do you mean you’re that kind of biased?

Don’t tell me what he said. Tell me what you said to let him know he can’t get away with saying that. That’s the kind of reporter I want, the kind we all should want.

Let him stumble through a response because there’s no way he can come up with a legitimate answer. And then, if he does manage to give some sort of political-speak gobbledygook, just tell him, “Sorry, sir, but that’s bullshit.”

What? Too direct?

“Sorry, sir, but aren’t voters going to see your answer as nothing more than a steaming pile of bullshit?”

Still too strong?

OK, take out the word “steaming.”

But they won’t do it. Instead, they all go back to the nearest watering hole and say, “Can you believe he said that?”

I can’t believe you let him get away with saying that.

Don’t talk to me about journalists becoming part of the story, either. You already are when you fail to hold these muckety-mucks to account.

I’m tilting at windmills here, I know. Journalism purists — I don’t know if that’s the right thing to call them — argue that journalists already know how to deal with powerful people who lie, as former Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler explained, with continued intrepid and unbiased reporting. In short, the solution for journalism is more journalism.

Not to dismiss such a credo, but if you do it later in print, in a broadcast or on social media, even the best intrepid and unbiased reporting will be too late. The spin will already be in courtesy of the media hacks routinely engaging in massive journalistic malpractice.

Let’s stop treating these lawmakers like they’re special. They’re not. They are a bundle of gaseous ambition cleverly packaged as public servants. Journalists have an obligation to call out lawmakers when they lie, so cut through their vaporous tedium and hold them to account. To their face. In real time. Let Johnson sweat under the pressure of knowing he’s been caught in a lie.

Yes, confirmation bias leads people who want to believe something to believe it even more when confronted by immutable facts showing them to be wrong. But calling out a liar in real time, on camera, to the point of embarrassment can make a difference when you see it happen before your eyes.

Look, Mike, here’s your tweet. Here are these guys saying point-blank that they won’t give Biden or other Democrats any credit for addressing the very immigration issues Republicans say they want addressed. How can you accuse Biden of the very thing you and your colleagues engaged in the week before?

Let viewers see all that. Let Johnson be subjected to all that. Let him wilt under the pressure of being caught in his lie. Create a moment of drama that could’ve been entirely avoided if he had just decided to be honest.

Remember all those tabloid television shows from the 1990s where hosts like Jerry Springer caught some dirtbag in a lie? Shows like that garnered big ratings. Journalists don’t have to be that theatrical, just intolerant of falsehoods.

Or maybe just get a little pissed off. Lord knows the electorate is.

It won’t happen. Here’s what will happen. Johnson will lie again, just like so many of his colleagues do. Some will do it like Johnson; others will do it obnoxiously, like Sen. Ted Cruz; still others, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, won’t care how ridiculous they look. But they’ll do it. They’ll continue to play on the vulnerability of reporters trying to maintain or, at this point, regain control over their journalistic integrity.

Forget it. Those boundaries are gone. If we’re going to get lawmakers to stop lying, journalists are going to have to scrap business as usual and start going for the jugular. Or take a page out of Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow’s book.

McMorrow drew national attention in 2022 after a fiery speech on the statehouse floor, calling out a Republican colleague who accused her of grooming young children and who then fundraised off that claim.

Instead of business as usual, “a much more powerful response is [to] call bullshit bullshit.”

Mr. Speaker: Sorry, sir, but what you said is bullshit.

See? Easy. So what are you journalists waiting for?

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