BOOK REVIEW: '935 Lies': How Governments, Businesses Lie to Us and the Failure of Journalism to Inform Us

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."  -- TV Anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in "Network" (1976) written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet

                                               

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As you'll quickly learn from Charles Lewis's "935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity" (PublicAffairs Books, 392 pages, notes, bibliography, appendices, index, $28.99) the state of today's world of journalism is radically different from the world of "Network" and Peter Finch's rant -- it's much worse, thanks to the decline and fall of major daily newspapers and the almost total absence of investigative journalism in newspapers and on TV.

BOOK REVIEW: '935 Lies': How Governments, Businesses Lie to Us and the Failure of Journalism to Inform Us

 

In this latest in a series of important books on journalism from PublicAffairs Books, Chuck Lewis not only charts the decline in serious journalism, he also tells how his career as a producer for CBS's "60 Minutes" and other programs led him reboot his life in journalism in the emerging world of non-profit journalism with the creation of the Center for Public Integrity.

On July 6, 2011, I reviewed "Page One: Inside The New York Times", an 88-minute,  feature-length documentary from Magnolia Pictures. In a reversal of the usual pattern, the documentary inspired a book, "Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism,  published by PublicAffairs and edited by David Folkenflik. For my review of the book and documentary, click http://www.huntingtonnews.net/5864.

From my review:

"Folkenflik, the media critic of National Public Radio,  rounds up the usual suspects, plus some unusual ones, to examine the future of journalism. He even includes an excerpt from James O'Shea's "The Deal From Hell" (another title from PublicAffairs, see my review at: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/5349) , a look at the 2000 merger of The Tribune Company of Chicago and Times Mirror Co. of Los Angeles and its subsequent acquisition by Chicago income property multi-millionaire Sam Zell. The title comes from Zell himself, after he realized what a poor investment he made."

In "935 Lies" Lewis examines in considerable detail how once family-owned newspapers like the Knight-Ridder San Jose Mercury-News became part of publicly traded corporations -- and how this led to downsizing and the ditching of investigative journalism. One response to this abandonment of a vital form of journalism was the creation of organizations like the one he started in his guest bedroom after he left "60 Minutes" and many more, including the important ProPublica organization, whose reporters have won Pulitzer Prizes. 

On January 26, 2012, I reviewed a book by a ProPublica reporter, Michael Grabell, "Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History" link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/20792. Not surprisingly Grabell's book was published by PublicAffairs Books, founded by journalists Peter Osnos and Ben Bradlee, among other influential media people. If there's one indispensable publisher of books about journalism, it's PublicAffairs Books!

The "935 Lies" in the title of Lewis's book is a reference to the more than 935 false statements President George W. Bush and seven of his top officials made about  the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Lewis's Center for Public Integrity published "The War Card," a 380,000-word report on the war released on the fifth anniversary of the start of the 2003 war.  The overall findings of this searchable report are summarized in Appendix B of "935 Lies." To access "Iraq: The War Card" click: http://www.publicintegrity.org/politics/white-house/iraq-war-card

Of course, lying is not limited to one political party. Lewis goes into considerable detail about lies from a Democratic administration, that of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, and how we got into the Vietnam War through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of July 7, 1964. 

The falsehoods and outright lies that led to this Congressional resolution are detailed in Chapter One, "Our First Casualty", a reference to a 1975 book about war correspondents by Philip Knightley entitled "The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker." 

It's listed  in the bibliography, along with another book that Lewis has used as a source for information about the Central Intelligence Agency's many instances of meddling in other country's affairs, New York Times reporter Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" published by Doubleday in 2007. I found a copy of Weiner's book in a thrift story and the extent of the CIA's involvement in coups astounded even this veteran journalist and history buff.

Lewis also describes corporate lies, including the ones about the dangers of tobacco and how public relations operatives have promulgated lies about the health dangers of nicotine. Appendix A presents time lines for the Tonkin Resolution, the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate break-in, Chile,  and other government abuses, as well as corporate lies about tobacco, the hazards of lead paint, black lung disease and many more.

Lewis says facts are and must be the coin of the realm in a democracy, for government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” requires and assumes to some extent an informed citizenry. 

It was difficult enough to distinguish facts from lies at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and the U.S. sponsored attack on Chile's democratically elected president Salvador Allende by the Nixon administration in the early 1970s, and it's infinitely more difficult and confusing today. The Internet Age makes comment indistinguishable from fact, and erodes authority. It is liberating but annihilating at the same time.

Often those in power strictly control the flow of information, corroding and corrupting its content, of course, using newspapers, radio, television and other mass means of communication to carefully consolidate their authority and cover their crimes in a thick veneer of fervent racialism or nationalism. And always with the specter of some kind of imminent public threat, what Hannah Arendt called ‘objective enemies.’”

Along with the books from PublicAffairs, mentioned in my reviews above, Lewis's "935 Lies" should be carefully read. I agree with Lewis's inclusion of Knightley's very readable book (I have it in my personal collection), as well as Tim Weiner's history of the CIA.

Lewis's book discusses the many ways in which truth can be manipulated and distorted by governments, corporations, even lone individuals. In his discussion of the murders of civil rights activists in the 1960s, Lewis  shows how truth is often distorted or diminished by delay.

"935 Lies" is a powerful indictment of the actions of many players in American and worldwide arenas. I recommend it without reservation.

 

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis

About the Author

A bestselling author and national investigative journalist for the past thirty years, Charles Lewis is a tenured professor of journalism and -- since 2008 -- the founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop  at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C. He is the founder of The Center for Public Integrity  and several other nonprofit organizations. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Publisher's website: www.publicaffairsbooks.com

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