Lies and Politics

February 18, 2011 • Volume 21, Issue 7
Do politicians lie more today?
By Marcia Clemmitt


Republican Rep. Joe Wilson (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)
In a startling breach of political etiquette, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouts “You lie!” during President Obama's address to Congress in September 2009, after the president asserted, correctly, that health-care legislation would not provide coverage for illegal immigrants. Wilson later apologized for his “inappropriate” and “regrettable” outburst. (Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla)

When Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted “You lie!” during one of President Obama's early addresses to Congress, the outburst was unprecedented. Yet, in the charged political climate of the past two years, hot partisan rhetoric has continued, and accusations of lying have been rife. Historians say that false charges by competing candidates and lies by government officials to hide their actions from the public are a staple of politics going back to the 1800 presidential campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Some legal scholars point out that the First Amendment broadly protects political speech, even when it's false. Some blame a lazy media — and clearly partisan media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC — for allowing more misinformation to flourish today. And some point out that political speech can be misleading without being flat-out lying.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Ethics in Government
Jan. 31, 2014  Whistleblowers
Feb. 18, 2011  Lies and Politics
Apr. 30, 2010  Gridlock in Washington
Jun. 22, 2007  Prosecutors and Politics
Jun. 16, 2006  Pork Barrel Politics
May 07, 1999  Independent Counsels Re-Examined
Feb. 21, 1997  Independent Counsels
May 27, 1994  Political Scandals
Apr. 06, 1979  Assassinations Investigation
Dec. 05, 1973  Presidential Impeachment
May 16, 1973  Ethics in Government
May 10, 1961  Secret Societies and Political Action
Jun. 29, 1960  Conflicts of Interest
Oct. 26, 1955  Businessmen in Government
Apr. 07, 1954  Fair Investigations
Apr. 25, 1952  Congressional Immunity
Dec. 05, 1951  Ethics in Government
Jan. 28, 1948  Individual Rights and Congressional Investigations
Jul. 02, 1934  Political Reform and Federal Patronage
Mar. 07, 1924  Congressional Extravagance and the Budget
Nov. 12, 1923  Issues Developed in the Teapot Dome Inquiry
Party Politics