By Catherine Breese
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” This quote is often attributed—on the Internet—to Vladimir Lenin, and, although he may have said something like it, he didn’t say it first and those weren’t the precise words he used. Some people attribute it to Hitler, some to Goebbles, and one source attributes it to Isabella Blagden in her1869 novel The Crown of a Life. None of these people said exactly this in writing. Why am I sweating this? Hey, I don’t want to start off an essay about lying by telling one. Basically it means that if you tell a lie often and vehemently, it will become accepted as true. Telling this type of lie is a technique of the propagandist. And it is a technique of our President. The spokespersons he has surrounded himself with employ it as well. In articulating the “alternative facts” that hold together the architecture of Trumpland, they perpetuate some lies that deeply concern me. They should probably concern you as well.
Look, people tell untruths and exaggerate every day. They lie to make their way through life, to survive, to enrich themselves, and to enliven their existence. Lying as an unfortunate fact of life: I brushed my teeth, I emailed you my essay, I’ll be right back with your order, the doctor will be with you shortly. These lies I get. I don’t like them, but they don’t disrupt my opinion of mankind or my grip on reality.
Then there is the lying of politicians. We not only accept lies from politicians, we expect it. It’s a team sport. We ignore or forgive the lies of the fella we like and become furious over the lies of the fella we don’t like. This is not the kind of lying that concerns me now.
First, let’s talk about quantity of the president’s lies. Our President seems to be lying only when his lips are moving. During the campaign he lied 70% of the time, according to PolitiFact. (Hillary, judged on the same PolitiFact scale, lied 26% of the time.) Since taking office his lying streak has continued. According to the Washington Post, which is keeping a running tab, he has lied 190 times in his 43 days in office. That’s 4.4 lies per day. You doubt it is this high? Let’s say they are off by half because of bias. That’s still a barnyard of bullshit, much more than your average politician.
Second, there is the quality of the lying. The President and his spokespeople deliver a prodigious combination of absurd hyperbole, outright untruths, and those big lies, which are more dangerous. In terms of variety and quality, they are, by the Charlie Sheen definition, totally winning. We see the hyper-hyperbole often from Donald Trump: “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life…” [i]. And “I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment.”[ii] These are just silly. He can’t help but talk about himself. His untreated narcissistic personality disorder causes these compulsive fabrications. As the Donald would say, “Sad.”
But here is the kind of lie that’s going to really screw with American democracy: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This lie and the many, many times he has called mainstream media “fake news” is that big kind of lie in Lenin’s misattributed statement. The more he says the words “fake news,” which he does with clock-like regularity, the greater the distrust grows. Who can we even read? Who can we listen to? They are all lying, unless they happen to support the world view of Donald Trump.
And I am compelled to point out the irony of his hatred of the media—it is the mother who birthed him, especially in the case of CNN, whose endless and nauseating coverage of Trump during the campaign pushed him with gale force winds directly into the Whitehouse. Well, that, and the Russians.
Have you reassessed your news outlets since the election? I know I have. I am reading more and trying to get out of my silo. But in the end, if I am to find truth in the news, I must use my good judgment, my public school and state university education, and my ability to make critical observations. So, we must continue, no matter how excruciating it is, to read and watch the news.
Ultimately, without a free and fair press, Americans will not be able to make good decisions based in reason. The main stream media isn’t fake. It’s biased. It always has been. The news is a commercial enterprise, supported by subscriptions and advertising. There is a natural opposition between the inclination to report “truth” and the desire to please readers/viewers. Journalistic integrity is supposed to keep things tilted towards the pursuit of fact. Journalists, this puts the weight on your shoulders. You can make the ship right if you continue to seek the truth above all else. Democracy depends upon it.
Sorry, but I can’t wrap this up without mentioning the Congressional Address of Tuesday evening, widely lauded by the “fake news” media as a triumph of normalcy and a big victory for the Trump Whitehouse. The President sounded just so presidential! He called for unity—oh my goodness! He talked about fixing our crumbling infrastructure, something both parties agree upon. He used Canada as an example of how we might alter our immigration laws! He talked about keeping Americans safe and preserving the middle class. He talked about repealing and replacing Obamacare, not simply repealing it (Who knew healthcare was so complicated? Uh, everybody.) Did the speech contain lies? Absolutely.[iii] But they were the type of lies we Americans are used to hearing in a political speech. Yes, it was wildly successful speech because he seemed like a normal politician. Here’s my instinct, though. The speech was a glitch, an anomaly. He can’t help but return to himself, and he can’t help but tell a lot of lies a lot of the time. It’s what he does.
It’s the job of the journalist to continue to do the hard work of looking for and reporting the truth, or as close as we can get to it, even when Americans are tired of hearing about it, and especially when the man who holds the highest office is feeding the country horse shit day and night. Journalists, we are handing you a shovel and asking you with sincerity, please keep shoveling.
[i] Press conference, 16 February 2017
[ii] Remarks to business leaders, Jan 23, 2017