In April, Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters released Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. The book lays out the “carefully concealed but ever-growing industry of organized misinformation that exists to create and disseminate lies in the service of political agendas.”
I recently spoke with Rabin-Havt about the group of people -- and their enablers -- feeding false narratives into the media, how we’ve entered an era “where truth doesn’t exist,” and how to fix the problem.
The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The book is titled Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics. What does that refer to?
Well it refers to two things. It refers to a group of people who I found in this book are at the center of creating a lot of the lies you see permeating through the conservative media. A group of people who have come up with everything from death panels to the notion that children raised by LGBT couples have worse outcomes than children raised by straight couples. It’s a recognition that a group of people exists to create lies for both ideological and financial profit with the express intent of distorting the public policy process. That’s Lies, Incorporated.
The post-truth refers to the fact that because of this group and because of the media environment that this group feeds off of, we now exist in a world where truth doesn’t exist. Where there’s a truth on the right and a truth on the left, and instead of having debates about issues, we have debates about what is true and what is false, and that’s not a debate that advances us as a country.
And this is a group that not a lot of people realize exists, with an agenda to argue against the facts?
Sometimes a group of people, “experts,” who are paid to create the facts, who are paid to manufacture the facts with the express intent -- and this is what’s interesting -- not of advancing their cause, but of taking us to a draw, keeping us at the status quo. It’s not about advancing an ideology, it’s about keeping everything locked in place.
Because there are certain people who benefit from that, whether it’s a certain political party, or a certain business?
It’s a certain ideology, it’s a certain business, it’s a certain faction, it’s sometimes a group of people. Sometimes the issues are barely connected. A lot of the scientists who worked against the notion that tobacco causes cancer had issues that were completely unrelated. Some were cold warriors who simply believed that any regulation was a step towards communism. One prominent tobacco scientist was a eugenicist who believed that cancer was caused by genetics and therefore couldn’t be caused by tobacco.
The book opens with the story that in 1957 the tobacco industry really started it.
The tobacco industry, they were patient zero here, they really launched this world. What happened is the barons of the tobacco industry met at the Plaza Hotel with John Hill, who was the head of Hill & Knowlton, the legendary public relations firm. John Hill sat them down and said, “You have to stop this advertising that says our cigarettes are the healthiest, you have to cut that out. What we need you to do is start arguing with the science that says cigarettes are unhealthy. And how you do that is we form this Tobacco Industry Research Committee and we do our own science that speaks to our needs.”
What’s interesting is John Hill knew cigarettes are unhealthy. How do we know that? Because John Hill quit smoking prior to this meeting because of its impact on him.
You cover a lot of issues in the book, such as cigarettes, climate change, guns, immigration, and abortion. Which issues among the ones in the book seem to have the biggest offenders?
They’re all very different. The thing I would like to look at is that these lies have an impact on people. We think about death panels for example. This woman, Betsy McCaughey, made up death panels.
That was in the Affordable Care Act debate.
That was horrible, right? But the truth is why it’s horrible is because people aren’t getting insurance today because of that lie. Who isn’t? Well, there was a story in the Washington Post that quoted two women who qualified for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, but weren’t getting it and were paying out of pocket for expensive out-of-pocket costs and when they asked them why, one put her fingers in the shape of a gun and implied that it was death panels.
You cite several conservative outlets from Fox News to The Daily Caller to Breitbart. What is the role that the right-wing media have in spreading these lies?
Some of it is laziness, some of it is people are biased towards lies that conform to their world views and confirm their world views. They make us comfortable, they make us feel good. We go to media that doesn’t educate us, that makes us feel good about living in our own world.
My friend Clay Johnson wrote a book a few years back called The Information Diet. In it, he talks about how pizza tastes better than broccoli. If you had a pizza pie in front of you and a plate of steamed broccoli, which one do you want to eat? Well, 99 percent of people want to eat the pizza. But we know that you can’t just eat pizza, you need to eat your broccoli, too. The fact is, we know that in our food diets. On our information diets, people believe and just ingest only pizza, and that’s part of the problem.
Has that gotten better or worse in recent years?
I think it’s gotten worse. Part of the reason is we have a media structure now where you don’t have to get any information other than the information you want.
Our world now is a world of unlimited bandwidth. Which in the end it is better to have more voices in the process, it’s better to have a world where somebody can create a site like Daily Kos, like Breitbart and rise up based on the ability to attract an audience -- that’s not a bad thing. The question is, if your only source of news is somebody like Breitbart, it’s going to distort your world view.
Why do you think the Lies, Incorporated group has so much success with these right-wing outlets?
Sometimes they work for them. You look at certain right-wing outlets, and you’ll see members of Lies, Incorporated writing and working for them. Sometimes it’s because these liars are spreading lies that conform to that world view. And part of that is, a lot of this world blossomed over the past seven years. In the past seven years, we had a Democrat in the White House who was pushing for change that leaned progressive, which meant the people fighting that change were conservative, which meant Lies, Incorporated, whose goal is to keep the status quo in place, was fighting against that. I think that creates the world that you’re talking about.
How much does the mainstream media enable these lies?
I think they occasionally do. I think some of it is when you have the ‘he said-she said’ version of reporting, it enables the lies. It’s also enabling to the lies to sometimes just broadcast them in general. Putting Betsy McCaughey on TV at all, even if you’re doing it to call her out, enables her lies. The question is, how do you then structure your coverage, and this is part of the solution, is media need to bear responsibility for broadcasting lies and for putting liars on television. And when they do, this will help to start to solve this problem.
You mention false equivalency in the book, in which every story has to have two equal sides.
Sometimes I feel like public policy stories end up getting covered like AP sports stories. An AP sports story has a similar model every time. Two teams played, this was the score, quote from winning team, quote from losing team, close story. When you try to cover public policy that way, you invariably end up injecting lies into the equation.
People can have differences of opinion. We can look at similar data and have a different view on what that data means. That happens all the time. And there should be differences and we should have a debate about those differences. And we should come to the best conclusions. But the data should be the data and should be upheld and truth should be truth and we should hold it up and we shouldn’t allow people to inject lies in just because they’re doing it under the cover of politics.
Which lies are the worst culprits on the false equivalency?
The one that I think rises above all else is climate change, where the false equivalency for years put climate deniers who had no standing in the scientific community at the same level as scientists and in fact advanced some climate deniers further because they weren’t interested in science and accuracy, they were interested in spinning politics.
Why does it still stick when there is overwhelming scientific agreement that there is man-made climate change?
The lies are sticky, when people believe what they believe it is very difficult to convince people to look at truth when they have a firmly held belief in their head.
What is the way to counter this?
Part of it is a media solution, not giving liars a platform to lie and not allowing them to grow in the media. Part of it is making sure there is a transparency in how issues are covered. Part of it is making sure we don’t cover public policy like we’re covering basketball.
If we did those three things alone, it would weaken Lies, Incorporated because the practitioners of Lies, Incorporated are hackers, they’re hackers of our small “d” democratic process.
Hackers exploit weakness in computer systems. These democracy hackers exploit weakness in our media and public policy systems recognizing that they can inject themselves into the debate. Like a patch on a piece of computer software, by closing those loopholes and vulnerabilities, we can shut them out of the system.
How are these liars making money doing this?
Some of it is grant money from conservative institutions, some of it is speaking fees, some of it is writing a best-selling book. Some of it is they hold positions that allow them to make money and do this ideologically. Some of them are independently wealthy.
What is the biggest surprise people might find from the book?
How interconnected this world is. How all these people kind of all come from the same kernel. How all of this is an interconnected web designed to distort democracy. And how we actually, this is going on behind the scenes and how little coverage it gets.