Lying Is the Business of Right-Wing Propagandists
We live in troubling times, what many have dubbed a “post-truth” era, where there’s little, if any, political penalty for conservatives to tell outright lies about everything from health care to climate change, an environment that has led directly to the situation we face now, where the Republican primary is a race between two stunningly belligerent and shameless liars.
Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters have come together to chronicle how things got this bad in a new book, Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. I interviewed Rabin-Havt about the industry that’s grown up to create and spread the lies that are the basis of much of modern right-wing propaganda.
Your book is titled Lies, Incorporated, which you say is more than a snazzy title, but a reference to “this industry made of lobbyists, PR companies, media lackeys, unethical experts and unscrupulous think tanks.” And it’s all for the purpose of spreading and ingraining lies into the public consciousness, usually from the right. Why do you think this deserves a designation as its own industry?
When I started digging in, I found it to be something different than your day-to-day run-of-the-mill D.C. lobbying and corruption. I found it to be something wholly more unethical and wholly strategically separate. Even though it’s part and parcel of the tactics used in those efforts, it becomes something different when you think about the fact that these are individuals who set out to intentionally manipulate public policy by manipulating the truth.
This whole system started with the tobacco industry and its efforts to shut down discussion about how smoking causes cancer. Can you talk about that history?
Sure, and full credit to Naomi Oreskes and her team and her work at Harvard and her book, which I think really opened a lot of eyes around this.
John Hill met with kind of the tobacco barons in the 1950s and they had a problem—their issue was that there were a series of articles coming out where the linkages between their product and cancer were becoming more and more clear. In fact, the research that linked tobacco to cancer dates back decades before that. By the time they met it was kind of becoming widely accepted.
So Hill sets up a PR infrastructure to combat the very idea that tobacco was causing health problems. They basically decided that the best way for them to maintain their profits as an industry was to join together and deny facts and knowingly lie.
What’s interesting is John Hill, this legendary PR guy, before he had this meeting with the tobacco barons, he himself had quit smoking because of health concerns!
And yet still was willing to push this.
If you look at the quote-unquote tobacco scientists, and then if you look at a lot of the people I cite in the book, it’s very easy to say—you hear this all the time with climate scientists—"these are people who sold out for money." It’s really easy to say that. That’s not true in most of these cases. There is financial gain, let’s not toss that to the side, but these people do it for ideology.
For example, in the case of climate, if you look at the ideology of some of the distinguished researchers that were coming out who were climate deniers, a lot of it is anticommunism. Why? Because they believe that big government and government intervention in such a large scale problem invariably takes a road towards more government control, hence, communism.
It seems to me that while the climate denialist movement started with this well-funded industry attempt to find some dirt on climate scientists, the attacks really got traction because all of these right-wing ideologues started dog-piling these scientists. What happened there?
You have a hack of East Anglia University, which was a pretty unknown university to people outside this world, where a bunch of emails from climate scientists all around the world discussing their research get exposed. They’re people on an email list together, and when people are on an email list together in the confines of friends, they talk in a fairly casual manner because you assume good faith. If you take things out of context when people are speaking in a casual manner, especially scientists, you end up with ideological weapons that can be used.
Ken Cuccinelli, who was then attorney general of Virginia and trying to run for governor, tried to get climate scientist Michael Mann's records from UVA, where he had been a professor. You have investigations launched, all of which find, of course, that there’s nothing wrong.
At the same time, people who are ideologically interested in trying to shoot down global warming constantly use “Climategate” as an excuse. Back in my old Media Matters days, when we got an inbox with a bunch of internal Fox emails, one of the ones I mention in this book was an email where the Washington managing editor ordered reporters to kind of cite climategate when talking about climate change. So you see this repeatedly carried out through the media to convince people that, “Oh, this proves that climate change is just some giant liberal scam,” which is what a lot of people believe somehow.
The death panels issue is a crystalline example of how industry needs come together with right-wing ideology to push this ridiculous idea into the public and it somehow takes off. How did that happen?
You have Betsy McCaughey, who is a known liar. Ezra Klein had written back in 2009 that the thing about Betsy McCaughey is, “She’s an exciting liar.” So her lies work.
In the 1990s, she’d written an article called “No Exit” in The New Republic, which became an infamous piece that the right, people like Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole and Bill Kristol, heralded as the piece that brought down the Clinton health care bill. It was full of lies about the Clinton health care bill, but in a pre-internet age it took a long time to debunk it, almost a decade. The New Republic only apologized for it years later.
McCaughey was a person who was knowingly a liar about health care, and when the Obama health care bill comes up, she takes the opportunity to re-enter the spotlight. During an interview with Fred Thompson, who was then a radio host after running for president and being on “Law & Order” and being a senator, she implies that the Obama bill has a section in it that tries to make seniors end their lives early.
Then Michele Bachmann picks this up and repeats it on the floor of the House of Representatives. Sarah Palin sees Michele Bachmann’s speech and writes about it on Facebook and coins the term “death panel.” So there’s a kind of right-wing chain that leads to Sarah Palin’s death panel post, which sparked the entire conversation.
With the book coming out, I decided to do a survey. I had a few questions about lies that I wanted answered. I wanted to see if the death panel lie still existed: Do people still think there are death panels? We’re seven years out, and right now, at this moment, 60 percent of Americans, of registered voters polled, either think that there is a death panel or are not sure.
We’ve now had Obamacare for a number of years and there’s clearly nobody killing grandma. One would think it might be in the news if there was a death panel killing grandma. Here’s what’s even more amazing: 51 percent of Democrats either think Obamacare establishes death panels or aren’t sure. And of course, 74 percent of Republicans believe that. That’s how sticky that lie was.
You lay out a really good case that lies tend to be believed on how exciting they are rather than how likely they are or what the evidence is. How does the left fight this sort of thing if debunking doesn’t work?
First, I don’t want to say that debunking is not important. Even if debunking is not a perfect methodology, it needs to be done or the situation gets even worse. Can you imagine if it wasn’t debunked?
But I think there are things that we need to do tactically. One mistake is there is a tendency among progressive politicians and others, even when we know something is a lie, to sometimes cave to it.
So with the end of life counseling provisions, that was actually something fairly important in Obamacare. It was something the AARP thought was good. Anyone who has had a relative who was a senior pass, you understand how those last days can be very, very difficult. You want people to be able to make decisions about the medication they’re on, about whether they should be resuscitated or not. People should be able to make those decisions themselves, and those things are complicated conversations that require medical professionals. But what happened is the administration ended up stripping that out of the bill.
Another issue is trying to enforce, through social structures, a mechanism where you cut off media access if somebody is a known and repeated liar—not if somebody is like a spinner, not if somebody disagrees with you—but somebody like Betsy McCaughey. She should not be given a platform to talk on TV because she’s interesting.
Take Donald Trump. The problem right now is you can’t cut Donald Trump out of the media. He’s the leading Republican candidate. But you could have cut off Donald Trump way back when he was a birther. It’s a media responsibility to say that certain people sacrifice their right to go on TV. This shouldn’t be a government decision, but networks can set policies to say, “If we know you’re gonna come on and lie, it’s not cute.”
You say in the book that you think the anti-abortion movement might be the most mendacious of all, that pretty much everything they do is based on lies.
It’s very strange to me because it’s something that could be grounded in a moral difference. That’s what it’s supposedly grounded in, but then you look at all of their actions and they’re based on lies, and easily fact-checked ones. It’s led to a world with these horrendous TRAP laws, which in and of themselves are lies. The very idea that Texas was passing these laws for the benefit and health of women is laughable even to the people who passed it.
It’s the same thing with voter ID laws. The idea that anybody believes that voter ID laws are being passed to prevent voter fraud is laughable, because there isn’t any of that type of voter fraud.
Everything is an urban legend at this point, that they then legislate on. Your book was written before this became an issue, but you see the same thing going on with the bathroom predator nonsense and the anti-trans laws.
Exactly, it’s the same thing. In that case you see people coming up with an outrageous falsehood to scare broad swaths of the population into believing that a problem exists that doesn’t exist. Assault is bad. If assault happens, that’s illegal already. But there is no rash of people pretending to be trans to enter women’s bathrooms. The bigger problem is that trans women are being victimized in our society.
When we think about corruption and how our democracy is hacked, we think about money and lobbying. But we also should think about how when those lobbyists enter meetings, they come in with fact sheets and talking points, a lot of the time based on lies. The issue should be this culture we’ve created where lies serve a strategic benefit in Washington and we really need to put a halt to it.