There is a Bizarro World out there, one growing larger every day, filled with “facts” backed up by “research” by “impartial authorities.”
When I first started out in the job market, I sat next to a fantastic editor named Lois on the 12th floor of a building on the East Side of Manhattan. She was funny, read Bloom County out loud to the office, and smoked the longest cigarettes you could possibly buy. This was the ’80s, and the move to push smoking from the office to the designated smoking area (right by the cafeteria) and out to the sidewalk was in its earliest stages.
The building was the Engineering Center: a placed filled with scientists and engineers, yet, every day we worked in clouds of cigarette smoke, and the closest thing we had to technologically protect me was one of those ashtrays that sucked in the smoke. Even still, by that time there was no question that cigarette smoke caused lung cancer. This came to mind when reading Lies, Incorporated by Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters.
Lies, Incorporated (a not so sly analogy to Murder, Inc.) tells of the rise of firms and individuals whose goal is to turn back facts when they conflict with the profits of large corporations or the power of individuals. Initially, according to Rabin-Havt, this process began with the tobacco industry that, in the 1950s, started to feel the pressure of the many studies describing the link between lung cancer and smoking. For years, cigarette manufacturers had fought against each other by offering cleaner, fresher cigarettes that were “better for you” than the other brand. The threat to their corporate profits forced them to come together and hire Hill & Knowlton and its founder, John Hill.
Hill first had them issue a grand statement to hundreds of publications about lung cancer and the inconclusive proof it might be linked to smoking (which by this time was largely proven to be false). He also had them form the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, which took up residence one floor below his PR company in the Empire State Building. By creating a scientific shell for the Committee, Hill and Knowlton were able to better manage the response to the damning studies by presenting their own “scientific facts.” The ability to manufacture knowledge that supports your client’s needs allowed the agency to put that information out there and give it a life of its own. What the firm developed was the template for the way we handle and respond to facts about controversial subjects in both corporate and political life.
While politics has always been a dicey business at best, and fact-free candidates have ridden into office on public outrage based on dubious facts, the co-mingling of this new Lies, Incorporated money and politics formed a very potent relationship. From tobacco, the template was used for corporate/political response to climate change, gun control, health care, abortion policy, and voter laws…to name just a few. What Lies, Incorporated did, and does, so well is to create an infrastructure—really, an alternate universe—to refute even the most competent studies by undermining and supplementing the basic knowledge with what is often crap.
Combined with the PR skills that make for a good pitch, this has been devastating to many promising programs, leaving in place policies that have killed thousands simply because an industry needed to profit. Using facts labeled as scientific and well-researched, yet are instead highly biased and poorly researched, gives cover to politicians who are more than willing to stand on the Senate floor with a snowball, asking why we should believe in global warming when the snow is piling up in Minnesota.
Global warming? Get people to call it a “theory” and question the efficacy of the researchers. Cigarettes cause lung cancer? Develop a hundred more theories pointing fingers elsewhere. Lies, Incorporated has especially turned learning on its head by playing on the fact that every argument must have two sides. It manufactures that other side, giving weight to the most ridiculous ideas.
The book is broken down in to chapters featuring various campaigns waged against national concerns. The chapter on gun control, “Two Dangerous Weapons: Guns and Lies,” is particularly painful. The authors detail the NRA response to the shootings at Sandy Hook: the moment when it seemed that the national consciousness might turn against the lax gun control and pervasive gun culture that gripped the country. The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and the “gun rights community’s favorite economist” Dr. John Lott launched a massive campaign to center the blame on the fact that Sandy Hook, like many institutions across the country, was a “gun-free zone.” Lott, in his capacity as a scientist, was able to offer unsubstantiated “facts” to support this theory (which was presented as fact), while LaPierre gave us the now-famous saying: “The only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The media bought in to the concept, presenting a fact-free view that the public was deeply divided on whether we needed stronger gun law—mandatory background checks—when even 70% of all gun owners said they were in favor of them. By promoting the lie that the administration of Barack Obama was out to criminalize and confiscate the country’s weapons, the NRA, Lott, and the Right were able to not only inspire a strong backlash, but also sell a lot more weapons.
When I started reading Lies, Incorporated, I felt that, outside of some history, the book really wasn’t necessary: A little logic and research would make you aware that many arguments against gun control or climate change are simply junk. But the thing that clearly crystallized as I moved through each controversy is that there is a Bizarro World out there, one growing larger every day, filled with “facts” backed up by “research” by “impartial authorities.” These fallacies are there to make you feel good about burning coal or owning dozens of military-style weapons. They are also there to make some corporate billionaire just a little happier. | Jim Dunn