When Lies Metastasize: A Meditation on the Media and Democracy

By In the National Interest Archives
Cover image for  article: When Lies Metastasize:  A Meditation on the Media and Democracy

(Editor's note:  Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia and the CIA's Director of Public Affairs.)  Metastasis:  The spread of cancer cells from the place where they first formed to another part of the body.  That's from the National Cancer Institute.  Substitute the word "lies" for "cancer cells" and add "politic" after "body" and the definition describes another disease equally well:  How presidential mendacity infects a democracy.  It's not a metaphor.  President Trump made that clear himself.

Last week Trump explained the process in an interview with The Daily Caller, a conservative website.  After naming CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC as fake news, he said, "You look at what's going on with the fake news and the people get it.  They (the network news organizations) had a very high approval rating before I became president and I think it's actually a great achievement of mine.  Their approval rating now is down as low as just about anybody."

The major news outlets paid little if any attention to Trump's self-congratulations for his "achievement."  It's not surprising.  From bogus claims of massive inaugural crowds on his first day in office to warnings of drug gang hitmen filling migrant caravans a few weeks ago, Trump already has established himself as the most prolific liar in American presidential history.  Nearing his 700-day mark, the tote board registers over 6,400 false or misleading statements  -- an impressive eight lies or misrepresentations each day.

Even with a White House distinguished by his unprecedented mendacity, most people probably believe that, whatever may be the fallout from reporting on presidential lying, it's the media's problem.  After all, the argument goes, journalists are paid to find the facts as well as identify the decoys.  Save for the obvious favor shown Fox News, Trump's house organ, and the right-wing outlets that parrot his prevarications, the payback for professional reporters who question his verbal effluvia as well as for their networks comes with the territory.

But to consider the impact of two years of presidential lying on the news -- both as a commodity that informs its consumers and as an institution in a democracy -- only a press issue misses a larger point.  The effects of Trump's ceaseless prevarication are metastasizing, infecting the politics of our democracy itself.  Much as events abroad show the political consequences of foreign leaders who disdain the truth, the last midterm election provides examples of the disease process across the United States.  The content of negative political ads in the midterm election campaign and their source is a case in point.

Take Trump's histrionics as he stumped for Republican candidates and what appeared on television screens.  Trump conjured Middle East terrorists hidden among Central American migrants, Democrats eager to install Venezuela-style socialism, and impending massive voter fraud.  Never mind his lack of any evidence:  According to the Kantar Campaign Media Analysis Group, sixty percent of Republican television ads in the closing weeks of the 2018 campaign pushed these and other negative messages.  It wasn't by chance.  In September alone, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC, paid for a fifth of them.  Their ludicrous accusations warned of the Democrats' ties to Islamic terrorism and the funders for invading migrant hoards.

Of course, to overlook the source of the ads' embedded lies takes an act of willful blindness.  It also ignores the damage done to the voters' opportunity to understand their choices.  The $4-billion flood of broadcast, cable and online ad spending in 2018 is testimony enough to the importance of the issue.  Rather than laying out real world problems, hundreds of thousands of ads repeated the presidential hyperbole word for word.  Negative ads are certainly nothing new; nor is hardball politics.  But with advertising content increasingly emulating Pravda's propaganda in the heyday of the former Soviet Union, the disinformation deserves scrutiny, not only by the press but also by the media industry's leaders who today are happy to enable the mendacity all the way to the bank.

It's easy to be cynical when revenue streams are denominated in the billions, but the critical responsibility of media giants in protecting the democratic process extends beyond standing up for a free press.  Writing ten years ago, Sarah O'Leary, a marketing expert and consultant, decried the broadcast industry's irresponsibility in the midst of a then on-going presidential election.  "If a company slipped through the broadcasting cracks and aired a spot that claimed a competitor's toothpaste actually caused cavities … all hell would break loose," she wrote.  "Political advertising is the only safe haven for a candidate to lie … and get away with it."  O'Leary concluded, "It seems only fair that those running for the highest office in the free world be held to the same standards as a tube of toothpaste."

Broadcasting is no stranger to standard-setting and self-regulation.  Nor is a role for the media industry in policing prevarication far-fetched.  Writing a century ago, the journalist Walter Lippman clearly stated the importance of that job in a democracy:  "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means to detect lies."

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