The never-ending saga of the American political campaign for the presidential nomination has revealed (or newly emphasized) some amazing fractures where truth is concerned. Each week, it seems, one of the Republican aspirants for the crown issues a new “whopper” that the major media organizations still seem loathe to call a “lie.” Leading the pack, of course, is Donald Trump, the man who seems to have no moral sense whatever. His latest whopper involves his claim that he personally “saw” thousands of Arabs cheering in Jersey City as they watched the twin towers fall on 9/11. Even faced with evidence that his claim is impossible—by both reporters and rivals like New Jersey governor Chris Christie—Trump has stuck to his story, this past week only modifying it some by saying that what he saw was on television, and then that millions of people around the globe are convinced that they saw it too. And yet, no one calls him a “liar,” which is what he so clearly is. Rather, the shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh back him up, saying his essential facts are “what everyone in the world knows.” Ben Carson, also vying for the nomination (though no one can really say why; Carson himself seems to think God has chosen him for the role), has also been caught in several ‘whoppers,’ especially regarding his youth. He claimed that, when young, he was a ‘bad boy’ who had stabbed someone, until this proved slightly exaggerated; he also claimed that he had been offered a scholarship to West Point, though everyone else knows that those who are admitted attend the military academy for free. Like Trump, though, Carson has refused to recant, and simply offers slightly amended versions of his whoppers. And Carly Fiorina, the one-time CEO of Hewlett-Packard (which nearly expired under her tenure), has famously insisted that she “saw” videos of feminists harvesting fetal brains, though no such videos have ever been located. She also continues to claim that 92% of the jobs lost under President Obama were lost by women—though the same statistic was once used by the Romney campaign until it was seen to be so obviously false the campaign abandoned it. And others in the Republican camp keep doing the same thing: uttering false statistics and faux facts that they refuse to recant. The reasons seems clear: none of the candidates seems to suffer in the polls because of such lies. Their supporters only double down, like the candidates, in their support and, also like them, attribute the criticism of their darlings to “liberal-left media bias.”
What has happened? Do Americans care anymore about holding the aspirants to public office to something as arcane as truth? Do most contemporary Americans even have the capability to distinguish truth from lies? Or do most people now prefer what Stephen Colbert hilariously called “truthiness”—the feel in our gut that we are right, without the need for all that tedious evidence, and logic, and fact.
These and other questions are very much at issue in Charles Lewis’ recent book, 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (Public Affairs: 2014). Lewis has been a journalist all his adult life, serving as an investigator/producer for Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and then founding several nonprofit organizations devoted to bolstering the battered profession of investigative journalism, most notably in 1989 when he founded The Center for Public Integrity. What he does in 935 Lies is to show—using some of the familiar cases of the last half-century marked by both government and corporate malfeasance (the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, based on a presidential lie; the Watergate scandal, based on countless presidential lies; the rush to war in Iraq, based on no less than 935 lies by Bush Administration officials claiming Saddam’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction as their casus belli; and the notorious history of tobacco industry denial and obfuscation of the clear link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer)—how both government and corporate lying has become more blatant and ubiquitous over the years. Indeed, Lewis himself had produced the 60 Minutes show on tobacco industry lying called “Tobacco on Trial,” in the course of which he was heavily pressured to kill or at least modify the story by the CEO of CBS, Laurence Tisch. Lewis prevailed in that battle, though a friend of his from ABC, the Emmy-award-winning Marty Koughan, was forced in 1994 to stop his investigation of the tobacco industry on the show Turning Point. Philip Morris had filed a $10 billion libel suit against ABC, and the network executives decided not only to kill the story, but, as part of a settlement, to publicly apologize to Philip Morris for its reporters’ attempt to tell the truth. That truth, as cited by Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop, is that due to the lies of the tobacco industry over the years, “100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses in the 20th Century, according to the World Health Organization,” and that an additional one billion would die in this century. To sum it up, Lewis cites what Marty Koughan told the Washington Post in August 1995: With its lawsuit, Philip Morris had shown that “for a paltry $10 million or $20 million in legal fees…you can effectively silence the criticism” (139).
This is really the key for Charles Lewis. The problem had morphed from the hiding or censorship of important information by the government, as in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (N. Vietnamese boats had not attacked American warships), or corporations as in the tobacco wars, to self-censorship by the major news media. Lewis saw this firsthand in his attempt to produce a 60 Minutes segment called Foreign Agent, in which he was exposing how former US officials cashed in on their political connections by working as lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments. He had focused on Pete Peterson, a former Commerce Secretary who had become CEO of the investment firm Blackstone, whose consultants were shown in the story to exemplify precisely the government-to-industry pipeline the story was featuring. But Peterson was a close friend of 60 Minutes’ creator, Don Hewitt, who told Lewis to ‘edit’ the story. Lewis finally agreed to the edit by substituting former Reagan budget director David Stockman (also with Blackstone) for Peterson. Though that didn’t solve all the problems or the blame laid on Lewis, even by Mike Wallace, the story aired as edited in the end. But Lewis knew he had had enough:
“I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally” (197).
In short, even before government or corporate pressures, the media were censoring themselves to avoid trouble and maintain cozy relationships with power. And the real conundrum of television news, according to Lewis, had become (or perhaps always was) the basic conflict between money and truth: “TV is an immensely powerful medium, but its potential to make astonishing sums of money is typically realized only by appealing to the lowest-common-denominator instincts of viewers.” The most famous instance of this was when legendary CBS producer Fred Friendly tried to broadcast live coverage of Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1971 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the problems in Vietnam. To do so, however, CBS would have to interrupt its profitable daytime reruns of I Love Lucy. Not surprisingly, CBS execs chose I Love Lucy. To have aired the Fulbright hearings over Lucy would have represented, as David Halberstam put it, “a higher price for democracy than most network executives would be willing to pay” (164).
After quitting CBS in 1989, Charles Lewis founded The Center for Public Integrity, today the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world. It has not only received Pulitzer prizes, Polk awards, and countless other honors for its serious investigative reporting, but has also inspired other similar organizations to supplant the seriously curtailed reporting traditionally done by large newspapers—who can no longer afford it. Lewis is rather optimistic about these developments, including those on the Internet, and about the continuing ‘thirst’ for the general public to know the truth.
I am not so sure. Consider what we began with: the serious decline in any price being paid by presidential aspirants who are caught in outrageous lies. The public simply does not seem to care if their public figures shade or distort or completely falsify the truth. This is partly because of the decline in investigative reporting that Lewis details in his book. It is also due to secrecy—the mania for classifying documents that Lewis also records: just recently, for example, the number of US Government documents classified has risen from 8.6 million in 2001 to 23.8 million in 2008, and then in two more years, to 76.7 million documents classified in 2010. All of these documents require security clearance of one degree or another, with 1.2 million Americans now having Top Secret clearance to read them. As Lewis puts it, “our citizenry is divided into two tiers—a small elite with access to inside knowledge about our government, and a vast lower echelon that is kept in the dark” (227-8). But what Lewis cited about the dumbing down of the media is also clearly a factor. Here, a recent article by Matt Taibbi has some very salient points to make.
Taibbi’s article (in Rolling Stone, reprinted 27 November on Reader Supported News), responding to the same lies by Republican candidates cited above, is titled: “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Like many of us, Taibbi is shocked by the apparent indifference of the public to the level of lying, and more, to the lack of any penalty paid by the liars when their lies are publicly exposed. As he puts it, it used to be that “if a candidate said something nuts…the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies.” As, for example, Al Gore did when confronted with his implication that he had invented the Internet. Now, however, politicians “are learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it.” They just blame the media and get to be heroes to their media-hating base, which is convinced that the liberal media is all “controlled by special interests” who want an established candidate as their nominee.
But Taibbi goes deeper, into what major media in this nation have become—“a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games.” Where once TV news was dominated by Edward R. Murrow and real investigative reports on important issues of the day, now it’s nothing but “murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.” The results are clear: When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon “audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.” So it’s not just that at some point, TV executives decided that their audiences preferred I Love Lucy (and the money they coughed up for goods promoted there) to Fulbright Senate Committee Hearings on dull old Vietnam; it’s also that after many years of this, audiences simply no longer have the ability to distinguish between corporate-generated pseudo-news and real information necessary to a democracy. Between the truth as supported by facts, and the lies that stroke their preferences about the way things in the world are, or should be. Most people must know, by now, that what they’re seeing on TV commercials are lies—distortions of the truth, if not outright fabrications. The problem is, the commercial lies begin to bleed over into the news distortions. The news omissions. The news that becomes simply a slight makeover of whatever foreign or domestic position the opinion-makers hand out for us to believe.
And perhaps it’s even more basic than that. It really becomes a question of how much truth we wish to know, or can bear to know. How much do we wish to know about the dire predictions regarding climate change? Regarding the complex mess in Syria deriving from our own foreign misadventures? Regarding the critical state of our oceans, or our garbage dumps, or what we’re doing to our own bodies, our own planet? About how we’re being manipulated daily by the most corrupt, murderous, money-hungry corporations on this planet, who have literally become governments unto themselves. About how the endless dramas on TV about cops and their glorious efforts to protect us are really meant to disguise how corrupt they truly are, how specifically designed to protect only certain segments of the population while controlling the ‘other’ segments, even unto their deaths? How much of this do we really want to know? Or would we rather tune in to I Love Lucy?
In short, though we are surely the target of massive deception from above, we also collude in our own self-deception; the self-censorship we confront stems, at least in part, from our own willingness to leave the hard decisions to others. Trained by media to be spectators at the pro game rather than players in our own, to be watchers rather than actors or singers or protestors, we grow more and more content to let the world proceed along lines of least resistance and enjoy our mediated world, our pre-fabricated confinement, our gut-satisfying “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert would have it. That’s because knowing is hard, knowing takes effort, being aware of what is being done to us, and what we’re doing to ourselves forces us to have to think and consider changes. And change is hard. Sadly, the changes have been proceeding at an alarming pace beneath our level of awareness, and have gone very far indeed. Whether we, most of us, can ever get back to that thirst for real truth that Charles Lewis is still convinced has never left us, remains to be seen. But it surely appears, in this terrible season of idiot politics and faith-based slaughter, that the prospects are not very good.