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Lying a Major Part of the American Experience

By Ericka Floyd

A new book by Charles Lewis, professor and journalist at AU’s School of Communication, examines the consequences of decades of deception from the government and corporations.

A government "of the people, by the people, for the people" assumes some sort of informed citizenry, but U.S. citizens are often not accurately informed and sometimes are purposely kept in the dark.

While distinguishing fact from fiction has always been a formidable challenge—often with life-and-death consequences—it is now even more difficult and confusing than ever as the line between truth and spin continues to blur dramatically.

Charles Lewis, professor and journalist at American University's School of Communication, examines the consequences of decades of deception from the government and from corporations in his new book 935 LIES: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity (June 24, 2014).

A Tragic Period in American History

In the book, published by PublicAffairs, Lewis addresses hot-button issues about the control, manipulation, and misuse of information. He provides examples ranging from the countless lies administrations of both parties have used to justify dubious wars, to the successful decades-long corporate suppression of the truth about tobacco and other products.

"My career in journalism over the past five decades has coincided with a tragic period in American history," Lewis said. "One in which falsehood has increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, and in which the bedrock values of honesty, transparency, accountability, and integrity we once took for granted have been steadily eroded."

935 LIES reveals the many ways in which truth can be distorted by groups and individuals wielding power, proving how the value of truth is diminished the longer it takes to reach the public. And the book provides several examples of news media organizations deliberately choosing not to report about certain sensitive subjects.

Hope for the Future

Lewis also describes new media trends, such as the rise of nonprofit investigative journalism, giving reason to be hopeful about the future of truth.

"With the rise of nonprofit news organizations and reporters, the truth might have a chance to be told," Lewis said.

The book concludes by urging the public to not only be aware of the dichotomy between actual truths and publicly made false statements and media censorship, but also to boldly demand accountability from our leaders.

Deeply Researched Exploration of Lying

Lewis and his researchers systematically tracked every "false and erroneous statement" leading up to the U.S. war in Iraq, a study called "Iraq: The War Card," which was released and covered around the world by the news media in early 2008.

The next phase of his research examined what Lewis calls important "moments of truth" in contemporary U.S. history since 1950 and the most respected journalists behind them; he interviewed 25 of them for an online multimedia presentation called Investigating Power, released at the National Press Club in April 2012.

Lies Presidents Tell

The book discusses numerous highly recognizable lies, including those stated by current and former U.S. presidents.

"If you like the [health care] plan you have, you can keep it." -President Barack Obama, November 6, 2009 (similarly stated numerous times)

"We found the weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq]. We found biological laboratories." -President George W. Bush, May 29, 2003

"In spite of the wildly speculative and false stories of arms for hostages and alleged ransom payments, we did not, repeat, did not, trade weapons or anything else for hostages. Nor will we." -President Ronald Reagan (national address), November 13, 1986

"I can say categorically that…no one in the White House staff, no one in this Administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident." -President Richard Nixon, discussing the Watergate burglary, press conference, August 29, 1972

"We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." -President Lyndon Johnson, October 1964