Here’s the question you have to ask yourself before reading Charles Lewis’ new book, 935 Lies—The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity: Are we as a country so jaded that we’ve come to accept untruths and misinformation from our government as just the cost of living in a democracy?
Lewis, who teaches journalism at American University and who founded the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), does his best to remind us that we can and should expect more from our leaders. 935 Lies expands upon a CPI project that tracked the number of false statements that the President George W. Bush administration told in the two-year build up to the war in Iraq. The lies were aimed at persuading Americans that Iraq posed a threat to our national security.
Deceit, however, is bipartisan, as Lewis shows.
POGO: What is the big-picture effect of the public being repeatedly lied to by our leaders?
Lewis: Over time—many years which have become decades—persistent prevarications by those in power leads to cynicism, distrust and citizen disengagement. Which, you may have noticed, we substantially have had now for decades. Distrust and disapproval of Congress, for example, is at unprecedented, historic levels. Voter participation in elections has been woeful for years. Etc.
POGO: You describe the problem of misinformation as endemic to our society-- why did you choose to focus on lies told during the Bush administration? Of course they’ve continued since then.
Lewis: The "935 lies" mentioned in the Prologue of my book, regarding the false and erroneous statements by President George W. Bush and either other top administration officials between 9/11/01 and 9/11/03, were compiled in a 380,000-word database and published by the Center for Public Integrity in Iraq: The War Card in January 2008, near the five-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
That prompted me to examine the extent to which this had occurred before, over time, since approximately 1950 to today. And of course, the Johnson administration misrepresentations about the Gulf of Tonkin and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam more broadly, pre-dated the Bush/Iraq war by 40 years. It also demonstrates the extent of what J. William Fulbright called "the arrogance of power" and the fact that lying by those in power is bipartisan.
My book also examines untruths in the Obama administration and others, and "mortally consequential" lies by corporations dating back to the 1940s.
POGO: What should a leader’s punishment be for intentionally lying to the public? Should he lose his job—or worse?
Lewis: A leader's accountability should be directly related to the seriousness of what he/she has lied about. In real life, whether a leader should lose his job depends on the circumstances of the moment, and obviously, the political will of the people. Unfortunately, we generally don't punish our politicians for lying, as we seem to have a bifurcated, bipartisan perception of "truth" in the United States, to the extent that in one poll, four years after George W. Bush's second term had ended, more than 60 percent of Republicans still believed there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.
We, as a society, have become increasingly confused, unable to discern the difference between truth and falsehood. And as Hannah Arendt and others have noted, that is a dangerous state of affairs, when we no longer can ascertain what is factual and what is not, who to believe and who NOT to believe.
POGO: How can the public demand more honesty from our leaders? Especially since it often takes years for us to find out that we’ve been lied to.
Lewis: The most disturbing discovery in my nine years of research and writing is this: leaders don't need to distort information and the truth. All they have to do now, in our fast-paced, short attention-span world, is just delay the truth, by years, months, weeks. We still don't have key documents from the Iran-Contra scandal, the second biggest political scandal in the U.S. involving a White House since Watergate. That was a quarter century ago! Is that coincidental? No.
We live in a society that doesn't have "real-time truth" about those in power. How can a democracy predicated upon an informed citizenry and self-government exist successfully if the people don't know the facts about those in power?
As some point, I hope the public decides to get angry and demand more truth, but getting there from here is an enormous specter to imagine. First of all, there is no longer a "general public" but instead numerous carefully studied, dissected electorally and commercially micro-publics throughout the United States. Marketing, advertising and high-tech wizardry by those in politics have rendered the concept of "the public" less meaningful and media political advertising has become a huge source of revenue for that industry and fanned the fires of fractious, vituperative partisanship during and between election cycles. We are the only advanced democracy in the world without free air time for politicians during election time. The only way the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law could be passed by Congress years ago was when McCain and Feingold agreed to take out the "free air time for politicians" section of their bill—then the National Association of Broadcasters and others backed off their opposition to the legislation and it passed, among other concessions made. The broadcasters now make a billion dollars per election cycle from political ads...
It is a grim situation which has been deteriorating in many ways for decades. And it will take years, decades, to ameliorate.