Eugene Volokh notes this misleading headline from ABC News: “Maxine Waters Refutes Ethics Charges.” ABC does not mean “refutes” — which presupposes that the charges against Waters are false — but merely “denies.” As written, the headline conveys the tendentious message that not only did Waters rebut the allegations against her but that she did so successfully.
Was the editor trying to bias the story in favor of Waters? Unlikely. The article goes on to report that Waters “adamantly refuted charges brought against her.” “Adamantly” modifies Waters’s actions; it cannot also modify the being or non-being of a state of affairs. You can’t say, “The Chairman of the Committee adamantly proved the charges brought against Waters,” for the charges can be true or false, but not adamantly so. Likewise, you can”t say “Waters adamantly refuted the charges brought against her” unless what you mean is that Waters adamantly denied the charges. The use of “refute” in the headline was not bias but catachresis (selecting the wrong word for the context).
Still, conservative critics of Maxine Waters can easily see that the headline uses a presuppositional verb misleadingly. There was a time, though, when mainstream conservatives were oblivious to the misuse of presuppositional verbs. Remember the infamous sixteen words in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union? Here they are again:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of Uranium from Africa.
Bush’s defenders pointed out (correctly) that the British government had indeed claimed that Hussein had tried to obtain uranium from Niger. But, as Steven Pinker observes, the verb “learn” presupposes that Hussein had in fact sought uranium from Africa, whereas not only had Hussein done no such thing but the CIA at the time had doubted the British government’s intelligence. Thus, the Bush administration could not have believed that the British government “learned” that Hussein had sought uranium from Niger. The verb “learn” was deceptive.
It is doubtless too much to ask that partisans be consistent in their interpretation of presuppositional verbs. Still, let it be said: the first Bush apologist who, picking up on Volokh’s point, protests ABC’s headline will unwittingly have admitted that Bush lied after all.