Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

“We have a high threshold for whether someone lied,” he told me. The phrase that The Times used “means that he said something that wasn’t true.” Saying the president lied would have meant something different, Mr. Rosenthal said — that he knew it was false and intended to express the falsehood. “We don’t know that,” he said.

It may be honorable for the media to be more sparing with accusations of outright lying. But that is most certainly not the Times’s standard. Rosenthal’s spin about the paper’s “high threshold” is arrant nonsense, and the paper’s readers presumably know this. In January 2006, the Times published an editorial criticizing George W. Bush and calling attention to what the Times pronounced as “a couple of big, dangerous lies.”

What were those two “lies”? The first was that the Bush administration’s domestic spying apparatus “is carefully aimed” at those working with al-Qaeda, when in fact by the Times’s lights the program “has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans.” That’s some fairly clumsy–and dishonest–sleight of hand from the Times in what amounts to a disagreement over just how “careful” the surveillance had been. What was the other “lie”? That with the domestic surveillance now in place 9/11 could have been prevented. Perhaps that is an unlikely justification, but any threshold which considers that a “lie” is low indeed.

The idea that Bush “lied” the country into war with Iraq has long since been debunked: Bush, like those around him and our allies, was fooled by the faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the Times editorial board painted Bush as a serial liar on the matter. In December 2008, reflecting on the Bush tenure, the Times published an editorial growling that it was by then public knowledge that “Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated Congress, public opinion and anyone else they could bully or lie to.” Does the accusation–again, by then conclusively debunked–that Bush was a compulsive liar meet the “high threshold” the paper now claims governs its use of the word? Of course not.

Two years earlier the paper’s editorial board lamented that Bush needed “a blue ribbon commission” to tell him that “Government officials should not lie to the public.” It appears that the left, including the Times, was quite liberal with its use of the “l” word to an extent that rivaled the left’s obsession with calling Bush a fascist.

Yet aside from the Times’s obvious hypocrisy on the issue, there is another critique of the Times editorial. Even if it isn’t true that the Times has a high threshold for calling someone a liar, we could argue that they should. As I noted earlier, it would behoove the Times to live up the standards to which it pretends to adhere. Yet even so, Rosenthal presents what the president might call a “false choice.” Certainly there is something in between “liar” and saying the president “misspoke.”

Sullivan pointed this out in her correspondence with Rosenthal:

But “misspoke” does suggest a one-time slip of the tongue.

Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked Mr. Rosenthal, if the editorial had said that Mr. Obama’s statements “clearly weren’t true,” or that the president “was clearly wrong” when he repeatedly made those statements?

He responded that the editorial’s language was fine, but he also allowed, “We could have done that.”

The president did not have a “one-time slip of the tongue,” of course. Obama made the promise repeatedly and without qualification. We now know that, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the decision to make this promise was made knowing that it was inaccurate and after a debate within the administration over whether to be frank about ObamaCare or not.

The president obviously decided that accuracy was a luxury the administration could not afford if it was to get its agenda through Congress. The Times should be encouraged to be discerning when accusing the president of being a liar. But were the Times to show such restraint, it would be new indeed.

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