Investigative journalist Charles Lewis spoke to a crowd of students and faculty on Thursday afternoon at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Dean’s Open Forum.
The forum, “Investigating Power and the Future of Truth,” was co-sponsored by both the Annenberg School and the Norman Lear Center.
In his talk, Lewis emphasized the misinformation that occurs in government, private corporations and the media. He spent much of the discussion highlighting the most egregious examples of misinformation in each of these categories.
Lewis, a professor at American University and the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, selected his examples from the comprehensive investigation into misinformation in America he conducted for his new book, 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity. For Lewis, who was named by the Encyclopedia of Journalism as one of the 30 most notable investigative reporters in the United States since World War I, the lies are perpetuated by not just government, but corporations and the media as well.
Lewis discussed the United States’ bleak governmental history of lying to the American public about the reasons for international military intervention and war from World War II to Vietnam to Iraq.
“I noticed that 60 percent of the American people believed that there were weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] about a year after Bush said they weren’t there,” Lewis said. “That was alarming, actually.”
That realization provided Lewis the impetus for a never before undertaken project. After two and a half years of research, Lewis and the team at the Center for Public Integrity had compiled 380,000 words in transcripts from the top eight U.S. officials on the status of WMD presence in Iraq.
“I felt compelled to identify the statements that had been made, precisely,” Lewis said.
Released five years after the Iraq invasion, the database was covered by major news outlets and represented the effort to change the opinion of the 60 percent of Americans who still believed Bush’s previous claims were factual, despite the fact that Bush had already admitted he was wrong.
Shifting subjects for critique, Lewis argued that the worst example of public misinformation has been taking place for nearly 70 years and is waged on the America public not by the government, but by tobacco corporations.
“There is none more egregious,” he said. “Not a single instance — including the wars of the 20th century and the genocides — matches what I’m about to tell you.”
Lewis began by describing studies that have showed the disastrous effects of smoking on health and also spoke of the tobacco industry’s response to the negative publicity.
“The tobacco CEOs met at the Plaza Hotel in New York and devised a PR strategy to mislead the public,” Lewis said.
He described the advertisements and public health studies that were virtually designed to ensure the survival of big tobacco.
“For 60 years, they kept up a subterfuge that it is to say, as recent as 1994, you had several CEOs swearing under oath that smoking was not harmful to your health,” he said. “None of those people were prosecuted for perjury, and they all disappeared quietly in the next several years.”
Lewis also singled out the media for being vulnerable to the whims of its advertisers, and in some cases, being too close to the government. He had three pieces of advice to repair what his book describes as “the decline of America’s moral integrity.”
“History should not be left for the next century,” Lewis said. “We need to change the accessibility of information.”
Lewis also called on American citizens to hold their government, corporations and media accountable.
“The public has to be resentful and mad and demand the truth,” he said. “There is a lack of engagement in this country, and right now this democracy is creeping along pretty shabbily.”
His third and final piece of advice was for students of journalism, seeking to make a difference.
“My advice to all of them is three simple words: Follow your passion,” he said. “If you care about what you do and you love what you do, you’ll be happy the rest of your life, healthier than anyone else, and you’ll make money.”