Is Lying Contagious?

Some years ago, while traveling for a client, I spoke with the editorial page editor of a Wyoming newspaper about writing an editorial supporting the trade agreement I was advocating. He told me he couldn’t do it. I asked him why. He said if he did support the agreement, a small, local cattleman’s association wouldn’t agree with the editorial. He worried about their hostile reaction. Sensing a lost cause, I seized a teaching moment: I suggested that he ought to consider leading public opinion rather than following it.

I was reminded of the experience after hearing the other day that the various shouting heads at Fox News had privately conceded shortly after the election that Donald Trump had not been elected but that they couldn’t say it on the air because that wasn’t what their viewers wanted to hear. In fact, their viewers were turning away at the suggestion that Trump had lost.

Obviously, that behavior isn’t what we normally expect from a supposed news organization, much less one that promotes itself as fair and balanced. Or, don’t they do that anymore?

Gone, clearly, are the days when an avuncular Walter Cronkite told us what was happening in the world, and we believed and trusted him.

Before we get too worked up about the little foxes, though, we ought to consider the role mendacity plays in our society. For starters, as the crusading journalist I.F. Stone famously said, all governments lie.

Franklin Roosevelt had to conceal his intentions as he inched the United States into World War II, until Japan attacked us and Hitler obliged by declaring war on us.

We can think back to the Pentagon Papers, which exposed how the Johnson Administration told the American public how well the war in Vietnam was going while privately acknowledging that it was unwinnable.

We can recall Watergate, with the President and several of his men denying any involvement with the initial burglary, several other crimes and the subsequent cover-up.

Jimmy Carter, as President, promised he would never lie to us, and perhaps he didn’t. But Ronald Reagan had a creative imagination even before he denied any involvement with the Iran-Contra affair.

And George H.W, Bush was “out of the loop.”

I’ll just mention Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman—Miss Lewinsky.” Whenever Clinton bit his lower lip you knew that a fib was coming.

George W. Bush and Iraq. Need I say more? Or, Barack Obama and,  “if you like your doctor, you can keep him.”

But Donald Trump was—and still is—the gold standard. Lying was a daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence for him. And the beat goes on.

So we take our government with a grain—or in Trump’s case with a block—of salt.

Conspiracy theories—and those who embrace them—are nothing new in America. Our history is full of them. Our politics are infused with paranoia. However, we’ve never before seen our public discourse pervaded with so many cockamamie ideas and so many acolytes.

But back to Fox. The idea that on the air commentators lie is hard enough to fathom. But to do it so brazenly, so insistently while acknowledging privately that what they’re saying not only isn’t true but is crazy. It’s one thing to have crazy ideas and believe them, but it’s quite another to repeat over and again something knowing it’s a lie.

Well, it’s the money, is one explanation. Viewers didn’t want to hear that Trump had actually lost the election. And when Fox reported the loss, viewers voted with their remotes, turning to other channels that were only too happy to proclaim fraud.

Fox wasn’t alone with that reaction. After the January 6 insurrection, the Republican leadership initially condemned it until they discovered that their base didn’t see it that way. The leadership didn’t totally reverse course, but it did tiptoe away.

Whatever credibility Fox opinionators had with the general public we can only hope is lost. Now, however, we must wonder about the mindset of those viewers who dictated what they wanted to hear and only started returning when the highly-paid commentators on Fox changed their tune. And we ought to worry about the future of our democracy when a sizable portion of our society is hostile to an unpleasant truth. We may live in denial, but objective reality doesn’t change to suit our whims.

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