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Truth and lies in the Trump era

Oct. 13, 2017

This article is co-published with The Nation.

“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth … but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world … is being destroyed.”

— Hannah Arendt 

Charles Lewis

Charles Lewis is the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a professor at American University in Washington. He is a veteran investigative journalist and the founder of two Pulitzer Prize-winning, nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. His most recent book is "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity" (2014).

In this essay, he looks at the early days of the Trump presidency and how his conduct compares with that of presidents over the last 40 years. Additional commentary can be found on the Workshop's site in "If Truth be Told," a series of three essays based on research for "935 Lies."

I came to Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down president Richard Nixon, and I’ve been an investigative reporter ever since.  I’ve investigated lies and abuses of power by every administration of the past forty years, first as a producer for ABC News, later for "60 Minutes" at CBS News and then as an author and the founder of the Center for Public Integrity and other muckraking organizations. My career has been grounded in the conviction that bona fide facts, a vigorous free press and accountability for government officials are essential to a healthy democracy.  

But the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, who seems to lie as reflexively as other people breathe, has stopped me cold. Trump’s presidency, and the way it is being reported in the media and perceived by the public, has led me to ask some basic questions — about my profession of journalism, the relative power of truth and lies, and the very future of democratic self-government in these United States. Does truth even matter in covering this president? Are he and his proclivity for telling falsehoods the problem, or is he a symptom of a deeper affliction in our political-economic system?  Above all, what can be done to remedy this situation — to restore facts and truth as guiding lights in democratic discourse and make official lying the scandal it deserves to be?

The sheer, shameless magnitude of Trump’s lies is unprecedented in U.S. history. According to The Washington Post, in his first seven months as president, Trump has "made 1,057 false and misleading claims," which "averages nearly five claims a day." The most respected fact-checking organizations in the U.S. ranked Trump as by far the biggest liar of all the presidential candidates in 2016.  Even senior congressional Republicans no longer publicly deny that Trump lies, and privately they fret that the man is manifestly unfit for office.  

“I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true,” said Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, in a recent interview with The New York Times.  “You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.”  Trump’s reckless disregard for truth, Corker added, could even set the United States “on the path to World War III.”

Yet Trump’s lying has not brought him down, at least not yet.  How is that possible?  And what does that tell us about how to proceed?

The explanation begins with my own profession. If the press had been doing its job during the 2016 campaign rather than chasing revenues, Trump might well not be president today. Instead, a mutually beneficial symbiosis developed between candidate Trump and America’s media, especially television. The resulting news coverage — if one can call it news — obscured the fact that Trump had a habit of saying things that were spectacularly untrue. Perhaps the most egregious example was the media’s silence about Trump championing the slander that Barack Obama hadn't been born in the United States and therefore wasn't a legitimate president. Trump’s years of repeating that discredited, racist accusation was what attracted the initial core of hard-right voters whose support he later rode to victory in the Republican primaries. When Trump was shrewd enough to stop repeating that accusation on the campaign trail, news organizations let him get away with that dodge instead of pressing him to explain himself.

Trump’s bravado undeniably attracted public attention, which in turn ignited the profit lust of TV networks. “It may not be good for America,” said CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves of the nonstop, uncritical coverage that his network gave Trump’s speeches, “but it’s damn good for CBS.” Candidate Trump received $5.6 billion in "free earned media . . . more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined," according to the data tracking firm mediaQuant. That massive amount of free coverage — advertising, really — helped Trump gain electoral momentum that proved unstoppable. 

Trump also benefitted from what amounted to a 24/7 cheerleading squad at Fox News, by far the loudest media voice during the 2016 campaign. (According to a Pew Research Survey, 19 percent of all voters named Fox as their main source of campaign news — well ahead of other TV outlets and even Facebook.) Not even the "Access Hollywood" video in which Trump boasted about grabbing women’s genitals seemed to faze Fox. Thus a substantial portion of the electorate heard little negative about candidate Trump and was inoculated against the critical news reported elsewhere. In effect, these voters were making their presidential choice on the basis of inaccurate or woefully incomplete information.

Beyond political ideology, a lust for profit has led hundreds of media outlets to downplay political news in general. Local TV, which is where most Americans get their news, has increasingly ignored electoral campaigns. Why? To compel the candidates to appear in commercials instead if they want to reach voters, thus generating millions of dollars for the stations. The last nationwide study of this issue, conducted in 2002, found that more than half of local news broadcasts “carried no campaign coverage at all…" Would anyone suggest that this scandalous record has improved over the last 15 years?  

Trump investigates elections

Illustration by Maria Fabrizio

The role of a free press in American democracy, as stipulated by the nation’s Founders, is to inform the people and hold the powerful accountable. But much of the media has abandoned these ideals in recent decades. News has become a form of entertainment, while too many journalists are adversarial only about relatively trivial matters such as sex scandals while ignoring fundamental abuses of the public purse and trust.

No single action did more to hasten the media’s slide toward profit-seeking triviality than president Ronald Reagan’s de-regulation of broadcasting in the 1980s. Reagan — like Trump, an entertaining demagogue who was showered with uncritical media coverage — ordered the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate the public-service obligations of TV and radio stations: the requirement that broadcasters provide the serious, in-depth news and information that citizens need to make informed choices in a democracy. As a result, radio and especially TV news turned into profit centers focused more on titillating audiences than informing them. Politics became cartoonish, a 24/7 spectacle of vituperative partisans flinging zingers at one another across split screens. 

Long before Trump ran for president, political discourse in the United States was corrupted by what Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein called "the triumph of the idiot culture." Writing a quarter-century ago, Bernstein was outraged at how news coverage had been "distorted by celebrity and the worship of celebrity; by the reduction of news to gossip, which is the lowest form of news; by sensationalism, which is always a turning away from a society's real condition; and by a political and social discourse that we — the press, the media, the politicians, and the people — are turning into a sewer."  

Remarkably, Trump himself in his earlier days personified this descent into idiocy. In Europe, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced that he had received “unequivocal” assurances from Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, that his nation would not attempt to block the peaceful reunification of Germany. Nevertheless, much of the U.S. media chose to lead their broadcasts and front pages with the breakup of Trump’s marriage to his first wife, Ivana, and his new relationship with actress Marla Maples. At ABC News, as Bernstein noted, anchor Diane Sawyer “was sent not to the Brandenburg Gate [in Berlin] and not to Robben Island in South Africa. She was sent to Marla Maples’ apartment…. That is the triumph of idiot culture.” 

As alarming as Trump’s lying and the media’s failure to counter it are, the real challenge confronting American democracy is, I believe, still deeper. Trump lies overtly; his lying is obvious to virtually everyone. Secret lies are something else. And Americans have been secretly lied to over and over again — by presidents, top government officials and corporate executives — about some of the most important issues facing us. What's more, the news media have often been late or absent in exposing the truth. Understanding this deeper pattern of deception is essential to developing a genuine remedy to the problems we confront.

The American people didn't discover the false pretenses behind the Vietnam War — the bogus 1964 Gulf of Tonkin "attack" — until publication of the "Pentagon Papers" seven years later. That war of choice caused 58,000 U.S. military deaths and an estimated 791,000 to 1,1 million Vietnamese deaths. Four decades later, the George W. Bush administration initiated another war of choice, this time in Iraq, after a public relations campaign that included 935 false statements about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and its links to Al Qaeda, neither of which existed. That war killed at least 134,000 civilians and wounded some 60,000 to 80,000 US service personnel. The war’s economic cost, along with that of the concurrent war in Afghanistan, is estimated at $2 trillion and climbing.

Corporate lying has racked up an even higher death toll. In the 20th century, at least 100 million people died worldwide from tobacco-related illnesses. The death toll is expected to soar to an estimated 1 billion in this century because the tobacco industry, aided by U.S. trade officials in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has aggressively pursued customers overseas, despite the clear evidence that smoking kills. Moreover, most of the U.S. media was shamefully complicit in Big Tobacco’s deceptions. With exceptions like Reader’s Digest magazine (which was subscription-based and didn’t accept tobacco ads), the press had journalistic laryngitis when it came to the risks of smoking, perhaps because news organizations were making billions of dollars from cigarette advertising. After Congress banned cigarette commercials on television and radio in 1970, the tobacco industry shifted to print, which received roughly $10.9 billion in tobacco advertising between 1976 and 2008. Meanwhile, the media rarely pursued tobacco stories, and in a few instances — such as the "60 Minutes" story that became the basis for the Hollywood film "The Insider" — such stories were spiked for corporate reasons. Of course, corporate lying has extended far beyond tobacco products. From asbestos to lead paint, coal dust to toxic chemicals, corporations have systematically lied about the lethal dangers of their products and truth and accountability have been delayed or denied, often for decades

Exxon, the world’s largest oil and gas company, has known perfectly well since 1981 that burning fossil fuels causes climate change; its own scientists repeatedly informed company management. Nevertheless, Exxon (which became Exxon-Mobil in 1995) has been on the front lines of climate-change denial, leading an orchestrated campaign designed to generate doubt among politicians, journalists and the public. The company’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, is now Trump’s secretary of state — an example of self-dealing that would have raised eyebrows and provoked objections in decades past. Who could be surprised that Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord? 

However, all is not lost. The fact that Trump’s poll numbers have been sinking since he took office suggests that presidential lying, when called out, does have its costs. Through August 2017, according to Gallup polling, Trump had the lowest job approval rating ever recorded for a president after seven months on the job:  34 percent. But here's the rub. Roughly the same proportion of voters (33 percent) described Trump in Election Day 2016 exit polls as "honest," while nearly twice as many (64 percent) said that he wasn't. In short, nearly one-third of American voters don't much seem to care whether Trump tells the truth, as long as it's their truth. You can laugh at the absurdity of living on Planet Fox, where facts and truth are in brutally short supply, but such willful blindness endangers democracy for everyone. 

There also have been auspicious developments since Trump came to power, starting with a revival of adversarial press coverage. The traditional news media has not been this aggressive since Watergate, and the new posture seems to have boosted their public standing. According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released in October, 48 percent of Americans now have “some” or “a great deal” of trust in the news media, an increase from 39 percent in November 2016. And special counsel Robert Mueller is deep into a robust criminal investigation of the administration, reportedly gathering evidence of financial crimes, including potential money laundering. Perhaps most intriguing, leading Republicans are frustrated, embarrassed, and angry about the president, which promises to limit his effectiveness — and perhaps more. Three GOP senators defied Trump to thwart the party’s efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act. After Trump floated the idea of firing Mueller or Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “Some of the suggestions that the president is making go way beyond what’s acceptable in a rule-of-law nation.” And Sen. Corker’s denunciations of Trump’s lies and recklessness may strengthen the spines of other Republicans to stand against this uniquely untrustworthy president.

Will enough Republicans turn on Trump to impeach him? The conventional wisdom says no, but conditions can change fast in politics. If Trump’s popularity plummets to the point that a significant number of congressional Republicans actually fear losing their own seats in 2018, anything is possible.  

Meanwhile, deeper reforms are needed to correct the failures that allowed a lying blowhard like Trump to become president in the first place and facilitated lying by so many presidents, public officials and corporations before him. Starting again with my own profession, the American press must return to first principles. It must remember why it is the only institution whose independence is explicitly protected in the Bill of Rights: not only because democracy is impossible without the people’s informed consent, but because power corrupts, and only a skeptical and probing press can keep the powerful in check. That adversarial spirit, leavened with fairness, should animate the journalism practiced by all news outlets, no matter who is in the Oval Office.  

And it must be applied just as vigorously to corporations, which have lied at least as often and destructively as have public officials. The dirty little secret is that, historically, advertising-dependent news organizations have been very reluctant to expose corporate wrongdoing. Of the first 90 Pulitzer Prizes awarded for public-service journalism, while only "a handful" involved primarily abuses of corporate power, wrote Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. That must change.

Returning to first principles requires reforms of both journalistic practice and government policy. Much more investigative reporting is needed, which in turn demands increased funding — so journalists can do the deep digging that unearths scandal — as well as increased courage from news executives, who must stand firm in the face of inevitable counterattacks from the powerful companies and individuals being investigated. Daily news coverage would improve immeasurably if Congress restored the public-service obligations of radio and TV stations. Those stations use airwaves that are public property, so the people’s representatives should ensure that those airwaves serve the public good. 

Citizens should demand all of this and more, and they can also help make news coverage better by paying for the journalism they consume. The rise of the internet has spread the pernicious belief that one need not pay for journalism. Revenues have fallen accordingly, triggering cuts in newsroom budgets, staff and ambition. So, please, pay your fair share — especially for independent media outlets that have been doing the kind of watchdog journalism that a healthy democracy requires (including, yes, The Nation).

“Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action,” wrote Goethe. If the media-enabled rise of the habitually dishonest, manifestly unqualified Donald Trump to the Oval Office proves anything, it’s that you do get what you pay for in life. Pay nothing for journalism, and that’s the kind of journalism you’ll get — a faint shadow of what the founders envisioned, and an open invitation for rogues and killers to do their worst.

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