When Vice President Cheney uttered an obscenity on the Senate floor in June, many readers were shocked to see that The Washington Post chose to print the word itself. But an even more shocking four-letter word appeared in a news headline yesterday (albeit one less likely to have gotten you in trouble with your seventh grade teacher).

The verboten word came in this Associated Press headline: “Swift Boat Writer Lied on Cambodia Claim.”

We’re guessing you can figure out which word we mean (hint: it isn’t “boat”). In a media environment in which too many journalists seem themselves as mere sounding boards instead of seekers of truth, news organizations have been overwhelmingly reticent to call a lie a lie.

That’s why the headline was so startling; instead of a cautious “he said/she said” characterization, the wire service reached — horrors! — a conclusion. That conclusion: Vietnam vet John O’Neill, who has made it his mission to brand John Kerry a liar, is one himself. (In this particular case, the only question is, which is the liar, the O’Neill speaking to President Nixon in 1971 or the O’Neill speaking to the voting public today.)

The sad thing about all this is that it’s even noteworthy when the Associated Press — or any news organization — musters the wherewithal to call a demonstrable lie a lie.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.