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The Decline of America’s Moral Integrity

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Charles Lewis’s chilling account of the mendacity of our leaders (beginning during the Vietnam War and concluding with the Bush/Cheney elective war in Iraq) will come as no revelation to readers of CounterPunch, though some of the surprising details he uncovers—along with his overview of the time involved—make 935 Lies required reading. Lewis’s title refers to something at the end of the sequence, not the beginning. One of the “Real-Time Truth Charts” at the conclusion of the book is limited to a two-year period, from September 2001 to September 2003, and sub-titled “Orchestrated Deception on the Path to War,” i.e., “935: False Statements by Top Bush Administration Officials on Iraq’s Possession of WMD and Links to Al Qaeda.”

The winner is George Bush, with a whopping 260 lies; followed by Powell, with 254; Rumsfeld, with 109; Fleischer, at 109; Wolfowitz, 85; Rice, 56; Cheney, 48; and McClellan, 14. The only surprise here is Cheney’s low number, but it is clear that if the chart were continued until today, Cheney would be the winner. Bush has learned to keep his mouth shut since he stepped down from office; Cheney continues to step in it, smearing himself with the excrement that comes from his mouth every time he speaks. Lewis provides an interesting question. Are these people so delusional that they actually believe what they say? If so, why do Americans keep electing madmen as their leaders?  You could say, then, as long as these people continue to be elected, that 935 Lies is as much an indictment of the country’s voters as their leaders. A second truth chart shows just how many times during the past seventy-five years it took forever to get action about issues that were harming all of us—asbestos, lead paint poisoning, black lung disease, tobacco, agent orange, to mention only five.

To turn to the beginning of Lewis’s book, it is worth quoting a brief passage in the prologue: “truth today is under siege.”  Then, chapter-by-chapter, the litany of distortions our leaders have employed to thwart their maniacal decisions (mostly for war and related issues). The Vietnam War began with “lies based on false intelligence,” and the news media failed in its watchdog role.  Nixon’s systematic smearing of Daniel Ellsberg, followed by Watergate. Then Lewis devotes a chapter to race in America, reminding us that it was an outsider, Gunner Myrdal (in his powerful book An American Dilemma) who had to shake the tree to get that on-going horror story into the news.  Oddly, Lewis’s discussion of Martin Luther King’s assassination does not bring up FBI orchestration, though that has been written about by others.

In an illuminating chapter called “America’s Secret Foreign Policy and the Arrogance of Power,” Lewis provides a timetable of recent clandestine operations, beginning his chapter with the following remark: “Since the 1890s, the United States has deposed or helped to depose more than a dozen foreign governments, often for the benefit of US commercial interests operating in those countries.” Allende’s overthrow, Letelier’s assassination (in Washington, D.C., for God’s 935-lies-nonfiction-book-lewissake!), Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador. And the way these surgical procedures can be continued? Deny, cover-up, obfuscate and when nothing else works, attack journalists.  Couldn’t be more damning about our leaders’ hidden foreign policy decisions and what they continue to do.

Lewis’s take on journalists and their reluctance to pursue corporate malfeasance is particularly hopeless.  Big corporations have so much money that they can undertake massive lawsuits against newspapers, knowing quite well that the newspapers cannot afford to fight back. There’s the additional conflict of lost revenue from corporate advertising that further compromises what gets published in the first place. Thus, few newspapers are willing to enter into what may be a prolonged battle against unlimited corporate money.  He cites, however, the Readers’ Digest as an interesting exception to anti-smoking articles. For years (until it ran into its own financial limitations), the Readers’ Digest printed no advertising, so there was no worry about lost income from the tobacco companies. This revealing chapter also includes an overview of the corporate smear campaign against Rachel Carson before and after the publication of Silent Spring.

I praise this chapter, though it omits any reference to the automobile industry’s lengthy smear campaign against Ralph Nader.

Investigative reporting has clearly suffered ever since the arrival of the Internet, with the steady deterioration of newspaper circulation. Lewis cites the heyday of this reporting with Edward R. Morrow (slowly cut down in size by CBS), Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé of Watergate, and his own first-hand experience in the field before he became an academic. (Note that although Charles Lewis teaches at American University, where I taught more than four decades, we never met.)  In addition to the other positions he held, Lewis was once a 60 Minutes producer. “Over the years, those unhappy with my investigations have tried just about everything to discourage me. They have issued subpoenas, stalked my hotel rooms, escorted me off military bases, threatened me with arrest or with being thrown from a second-story window, hired shills to pose as reporters asking disruptive questions at nationally televised news conferences, and even arranged to have death threats delivered by concerned state troopers who urged me to leave town immediately.” That’s quite a sentence.

Surprisingly, Lewis is optimistic about the future of getting to the truth, in spite of the “idiot culture” that shapes reporting as the nightly-news.  Thus, what the media ignores (almost everything important) has largely been left to the non-profits to bring into public awareness. He praises some of the genuine think-tanks (such as Human Rights Watch), not the propaganda tanks (Americans for Prosperity). He can also rightly be proud for forming the Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Even “The ‘ground truth’ of the Iraq War itself eventually forced the president to backpedal, albeit grudgingly.” I’m less sanguine about that because by the time the truth finally leaks out, the damage has mostly been done.

Still, 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity is a major book, a guide for the future if we read it carefully and keep our eyes open.

Charles Lewis: 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity

PublicAffairs, 364 pp., $28.99

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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