How should the media deal with Maine’s liar-in-chief?

Reuters | Jonathan Ernst

This week, the Bangor Daily News took a transcript of one of Gov. Paul LePage’s weekly town halls, analyzed it and annotated it, finding “scores of mistruths and misunderstandings of basic government functions.”

A similar pattern of repeated, blatant lying has been abundantly clear every time the media has conducted similar fact-checking of his public appearances.

Projects like these are difficult undertakings. It takes far longer for a journalist to fully investigate LePage’s many false statements than it does for him to rattle them off at a town hall or on a friendly radio program, and his staff often refuse to (or can’t) provide any clarifying information about his remarks to make things easier. This latest fact-check, for instance, was published two weeks after the town hall it was fact-checking.

These investigations also can never be comprehensive. Looking back at the examples above, there are plenty of obvious, provable lies they missed, and that’s in addition to the many fishy anecdotes and unsupported conclusions that almost certainly aren’t true but that don’t lend themselves well to traditional, journalistic investigation.

This dynamic is highly advantageous to LePage. He can lie outrageously at his town halls and his false assertions are carried on TV news the night he makes them and in newspaper reports the next morning, without fact-checking and often without even an opposing view being represented. It happened with some of these exact mundane lies LePage told in Richmond, just as it has with many other town halls in the past.

Even LePage’s most extreme false statements often receive a similar treatment. They are too often first repeated completely uncritically by the media. Only later do they sometimes undergo some examination, with some opposing voices added to second-day stories and, rarely, an eventual conclusion in the press that LePage was lying. (His story about an overdose at a Portland high school is one recent example.) Even in those cases, his false statements and the agendas he advances through them are given an unfortunate amount of public attention before the truth finally catches up.

So what’s the answer? How can the media deal with a chief executive that lies so freely about issues of central importance to our state?

A similar conversation is being held right now among national journalists, as they attempt to cover the campaign of Donald Trump, one of the few politicians who gives Governor LePage a run for his money in fibbing facility.

The Huffington Post has decided to add an editor’s note to all stories featuring Trump, making clear that he’s “a serial liar” among other things. It’s not too dissimilar to the disclaimer I recommended for LePage two years ago, adapted from the words of his own (then future) chief counsel, that he constantly “says things that are both stupid and factually wrong.”

That approach doesn’t seem to be catching on more broadly, but other national media outlets are using techniques designed to make both individual lies and patterns of falsehoods more clear to consumers of their news. CNN is now fact-checking Trump right in the chyron and the Washington Post, for one of many examples, when covering his recent national security piece noted prominently that it was “laden with falsehoods and exaggeration.”

A similar focus and commitment should be part of Maine media’s coverage of LePage. His pattern of lying should be given as context along with each new controversial claim and his statements should be fact-checked as much as possible before, not after, being broadly reported.

In most cases, quick reporting on public statements and events serves the interests of readers, viewers and listeners, but that isn’t the case when the information being provided is a lie. Given LePage’s clear history, he should probably be put on a journalistic tape delay (let’s call it the Canadian solution), so that his most dangerous and odious claims (like the recent, unfounded assertion that immigrants are spreading disease) aren’t given new life in newspapers and on TV broadcasts until they can be thoroughly vetted, and mostly likely debunked.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.