Liars’ Paradise

Of all the rationalizations the media give for covering the far right’s sensationalism, the worst is when they declare that, as humans, “we can’t look away.”

That’s simply a lie, because actually (as humans) we can look away. We can look away from lies and distortions of truth. We can even walk away. There’s no electronic fence if you don’t wear the collar.

The new Republican House—whose members seem more and more like boys shoving each other into bathroom stalls—have made our elected federal government seem minuscule, pathetic in scope. “Performative” seems too grown-up a word for what they do in front of cameras.

The potential catastrophe of the debt ceiling began hanging over our heads as they went through their reindeer games of committee assignments. Their debt ceiling lying is classic obfuscation. With other issues, though, their lying is bald-faced, like the propaganda surrounding their vote to cut funding for President Biden’s $80 billion overhaul of the IRS.

Irony doesn’t get more arch than Republicans lying about legislation that would stop corporations and every tier of the rich from stealing trillions of tax dollars owed to the American people. The Biden funding will be used to hire 87,000 IRS employees and modernize the agency’s antiquated technology. It will fight the institutionalization of lying within our financial systems.

Because let’s face it: we are a nation drowning in lies.

Historians talk about Americans’ inability to agree on objective truth, which dates back to the Vietnam War. But adding to this problem is the fact that morals are no longer agreed on, nor is social stigma. Consequently, we have a crisis of lying at all levels of society.

George Santos has rightly become the lightning rod for everyone’s revulsion, but I am just as disgusted by the lying of Elizabeth Holmes and Sam Bankman-Fried. In some sense, their lying is more pernicious than the bet-it-all-on-lucky-seven motivations of Santos, a working-class immigrant wanting the good life right through the turnstiles.

Holmes, SBF, and Charlie Javice (a fellow millennial believed to have bilked Goldman Sachs out of $175 million) present a cultural study in rampant immaturity and white privilege. You can’t say whether their moral corruption was driven by wanting in with the ultra-rich or the desire for approval taken to the nth degree of unicorn. And why not go for it when there are no consequences for upper-class white people? After all, Elizabeth Holmes is still living in luxury over a year after being convicted of fraud.

Bail reform for poor people remains one of the most contention issues in New York State, and yet the New York Metro area is filled with financial criminals and tax cheats who steal millions if not billions and never do time. Where are the sentences for anyone from George Santos’s Ponzi scheme employer that the Securities and Exchange Commission shut down in 2021?

Humans lie about everything from sorting our recycling to murdering our spouses. Lying to the IRS without penalty has become part of the American dream, the equivalent of having a new leased truck in the driveway. But lying in connection with money is killing our democracy and our society. An excellent (and stomach-turning) New Yorker article by Evan Osnos walks you through the elite professions that have helped J. Paul Getty and his many heirs maneuver trusts to avoid paying billions in taxes over the years. There is almost pathos in the compulsion to not just preserve but grow mind-boggling wealth—trillions of dollars that will still be on paper when the Earth surface becomes inhabitable.

The consciousness-consuming effects of shows like White Lotus and Succession confirm that Americans practically lust to be like the ultra-rich they profess to hate. (Let’s not fix the IRS because when we enter the realm of Getty, we, too, will enjoy paying less in taxes than a single-parent public school teacher!)

But now that we’re finally reckoning with institutional racism, we are being asked to let shoplifting and looting go unpunished precisely because we are OK with letting white white-collar thieves like the Getty dynasty and their enablers go unpunished.

Sadly, impeccable reportage (like that of Osnos and Jane Mayer) is not having an effect: our country keeps sliding downward. That’s because “the press” not only keeps moving the goalpost on the acceptability of lying but is failing to connect the dots on how our mutual acceptance of lying runs across political, economic, and social life.

In terms of public distrust, “the press” and government have run neck and neck since the beginning of the twentieth century. Americans recoiled from both institutions for their hypocrisy of lying while also being “preachy.”

Since Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, however, journalism seemed to accept its public role of identifying and exposing government’s failings and corruption. And not just that: It seemed to feel obligated to show our society ways to get back on track without sounding preachy . . . under the unstated assumption that getting back on track is what we need to do.

But in 1987, Ronald Reagan’s FCC killed the Fairness Doctrine, and in no time at all, the far right and Fox News moved in. And eventually Americans bagged religion itself for being preachy. Nobody wanted a nanny state telling them what to do . . . or worse, judging them.

“We have always been drawn to information that makes us feel a certain way,” the journalist Claire Wardle said in a Columbia Journalism Review interview in 2021. “And in an age where there were very strong gatekeepers and, you know, Walter Cronkite, etc., we didn’t have the choice to seek out information that made us feel a certain way. Now the internet allows us to seek out and feel certain things.”

Yes, the internet, the ultimate closer. Writing in The Guardian, William Davies explains that with Big Data, people believed that available information and knowledge no longer needed to be mediated by “professionals, experts, institutions and theories,” that Big Data would simply “speak for itself”: “Our media moment implicitly embraces the ideal of framelessness.”

And, yes, the noble role of gatekeeper has disappeared. The press got stuck in its own trap of objectivity and abnegated any responsibility to connect the dots and show who’s benefiting from the lying. It willingly allowed itself to be duped by Fox News’s “fair and balanced” business model, whereby Fox permits itself to “balance” accurate reporting in the “mainstream media” with alternate information that is completely sourced from within.

As Davies points out, “the key question is not whether [information] is biased”; it’s “whether it is independent of financial or political influence.”

“Reporters don’t have to read minds to know Republicans are pretending,” writes Brian Beutler in his Crooked Media blog. “They know through experience that Republican fixation on information security is entirely situational and unprincipled”; the very fact that Republicans are lying “to manipulate the press and mislead the public, is an important story in its own right.”

How ironic that when Republicans lie to the degree of abusing social norms, “we can’t look away,” but the media can sure look away from its role of exposing a larger narrative that makes us all complicit, regardless of motive.

We are drowning in lies because we are drowning in frameless content, information devoid of meaning and context. Yes, this is from the internet, but it’s also from the media’s refusal to make judgments on us: we want to lie on our taxes without being preached to. And now most of the “print” media is gone, disappeared; the damage is done. The reason that the New York Times and Washington Post have attained an outsized presence is that we have lost most of our daily newspapers.

As Louis Menand writes in the New Yorker, “In the end, we don’t care what the facts are, because there are always more facts. You can’t unspin the facts; you can only put a different spin on them. What we want is to see our enemy—Steve Bannon, Hunter Biden, whomever—in an orange jumpsuit. We want winners and losers. That is why much of our politics now takes place in a courtroom.”

Maybe that’s because the courtroom is the one remaining place where liars will refrain from lying. Last August, Donald Trump took the Fifth more than 400 times to refuse answering questions from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is investigating the Trump Organization’s business practices.

A 10-minute video of Trump’s deposition was recently released. And of course, as with everything, we can’t look away. §