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Why does the “big lie” work? For one thing, there’s big money it.
If Democrats say one thing, and Republicans say another, and it’s obvious one of them is intentionally lying, what is the “big story?” For most of the mainstream media, it’s not the lying. Their big story is the conflict. This is, literally, a complete failure of the press’s obligations to a free society as envisioned by the Founders.
Clearly, the fact that one of the nation’s major political parties is routinely and consistently lying about so many things should be big news.
Take the Horowitz Report produced by the DOJ Inspector General’s office. Read it, and it’s clear it completely discredits Republican claims that their investigation of the links between Trump’s cohorts and Russia was politically motivated. It states that the investigation was not undertaken for political reasons. Yes, they do note some procedural lapses, but to conflate that into what Trump and Barr are saying—that the report finds the FBI guilty of a politically motivated hit job—is a bald-faced and obviously intentional lie.
While a few stories do note—somewhere near paragraph 3 or 4—that the facts support one and not the other party’s position, that’s typically not the lead. For example, the New York Times story on December 10th on the FBI report carried the following headline: “Trump and Barr Criticize FBI Director Over Report on Russian Inquiry.” That’s news? But the fact that both men have been lying about the report for two days isn’t? Why?
We can get part of the answer by looking at how the mainstream media covered the Afghanistan Papers. When the Washington Post broke the story its headline read, “At War with the Truth.” Follow up stories in the media used words like “lie”; “mislead”; and “failed to tell the truth” in their the coverage. In short, the lying was the lede, and rightly so.
So, what’s the difference? Well, Afghanistan was a bi-partisan lie. Both parties deceived Americans about our prospects.
But when Trump, Barr, McConnell and Republicans lie about an issue, it can’t be the lead because that wouldn’t be “balanced.”
Look, the fact that one major party routinely lies to the American people about just about anything and everything—from climate change, to attempted blackmail, to deficit-exploding tax cuts, to inviting Russia to influence our elections … even about the forecast path of a hurricane for god’s sake—should be big news. And it should be the top of the TV news, the front-page headline, and the lead story on radio programs.
The fact that Trump and Barr are criticizing the FBI Director for not rebutting his Inspector General, or the fact that they completely mischaracterize what Horowitz said in his report—to the point where their statements are 180 degrees from what the report actually said is not the big news. But the fact that they’re blatantly and obviously lying is. And it’s important news.
Yes, the Post keeps a tally on Trump’s prodigious lying, but it’s kept apart from the news stories, which continue to report the he-said, she-said “balanced” stories that leave their chronic lying outside the context of the daily news.
Again, the Post’s headline on their Afghanistan story was “at war with the truth,” while their headline on Horowitz’s IG report was, “FBI was justified in opening Trump campaign probe, but case plagued by ‘serious failures,’ inspector general finds.”
So balanced, but so misleading.
Look, the “serious failures” were procedural. Providing misleading information on a FISA application should certainly be examined, and remedies should be sought. But that in no way equates in importance or scope to the main finding, that the investigation was not politically motivated. Making mere procedural improprieties a co-equal part of the headline completely distorts what the report said, gives fuel to crackpot and delusional stories being hawked by Trump and the Republicans, and is frankly, just bad journalism.
But it’s not just the Post and the Times. It’s MSNBC, CNN, and NPR—the whole alphabet soup of so-called liberal or centrist news outlets—that continue to enable lies and liars by according their mendacity the same weight and import as truth. In the words of Eric Sevareid, written about Joseph McCarthy’s rein of hate:
Our rigid formulae of so-called objectivity … have given the lie the same prominence and impact that truth is given; they have elevated the influence of fools to that of wise men; the ignorant to the level of the learned; the evil to the level of the good.
Journalism’s first allegiance should be to truth and accuracy in reporting, in the service of an informed populace. This is the rationale behind the First Amendment, and while the press has not always and universally realized this aspiration, it has done well enough that the people could ultimately spot a demagogue posing as their savior.
In an age where Fox News or Sinclair can and do regularly amplify the lies of rightwing would-be despots, at a time when social media can cavalierly expose billions to complete and utter nonsense, the legitimate media has a responsibility to tell the truth, to provide context, and to call a liar, a liar. And it’s even more important to tell the people when an entire political party is consistently and routinely and publicly lying about issues that go to the core of our Republic’s viability.
Indeed, this is exactly why our Founders saw fit to give them protections under the First Amendment. Jefferson famously said he’d prefer a free press without government over a government without a free press.
But the press is no longer free. It is enslaved by capitalists who would rather make money than tell the truth.
That’s why the Big Lie works. That’s why it is eroding 232 years of freedom, and that’s why Trump, Barr, McConnell and their sycophants get to misinform the people. And that’s why Trump will be exonerated by the Senate, and why he may even win in 2020.
John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track.
First published in Common Dreams. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.