Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it. To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo. Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney. Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.
As Poniewozik points out, Politifact has tweeted in its defense that it didn't use the word "liar", but what (tf) can "pants on fire" indicate other than "liar"? When you put yourself in charge of judging truth and falsity, you set yourself a high bar, one which Politifact usually clears admirably, but not this time. Linda Coleman and I once wrote a paper in which we examined the meaning of the word lie (which is probably why Geoff Nunberg set me onto this story). We concluded that there are at least three components of the meaning of lie: falsity, consciousness of this falsity by the speaker, and intent to deceive.
By far the most important of these components is the first: falsity. [This is wrong; consciousness of falsity was the strongest factor. See my response to Eva below. PK] I think James Poniewozik is exactly right in taking Politifact to task for calling Reid a liar when it has no way of knowing whether what he said was true or false, however much Politifact may find his saying it — whether true or false — reprehensible.