by Mary W Maxwell
I am grateful to a commenter at RumorMillNews.com. I posted an article asking if it’s OK for journalists to lie, even if that lie leads to war. Was I ever surprised when a man wrote in to say “Yes it is OK; it’s legal.”
His reasoning? In the US’s National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, Congress appropriated funds for the Defense Department to use in its propaganda war. Since 1948 there had been a prohibition, via the Smith Mundt Act, on aiming propaganda at the domestic public. But (as Naomi Wolf mentions below) that legislation was repealed.
One of the spokespersons for the changeover was US Army Brigadier General Ralph O Baker.
I quote a May 22, 2012 article in Business Insider Australia: It says that General Baker defines Information Operations as “activities undertaken to shape the essential narrative of a conflict or situation and thus affect the attitudes and behaviours of the targeted audience.”
[The General] equates descriptions of combat operations with standard marketing strategies. “For years, commercial advertisers have based their advertisement strategies on the premise that there is a positive correlation between the number of times a consumer is exposed to product advertisement and that consumer’s inclination to sample the new product. The very same principle applies to how we influence our target audiences….”
As it happens the general was forced to retire for sexual misconduct. Let’s follow his thinking process here: (as quoted in archive.armytimes.com):
“The Post outlined the accuser’s account of an alleged July 22, 2012, incident in the back of an SUV headed to Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, after a private party. She said Baker, who’d been drinking, put his hand between her legs. She said she fought off the alleged advances and reported the incident to the Defense Department inspector general ….”
“I own and accept the responsibility for becoming intoxicated that evening,” Baker said in an Oct. 2 interview with Army Times, “but to be found culpable with the other allegation without any collaborating evidence or witnesses is what I had a difficult time accepting.”
In any case after reading the claim at Rumor Mill that lying is legal, I wondered if I should go with the flow and just carry it on. You know, like in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
If lying is legal, I thought, we may as well say so and celebrate it. The masthead of a newspaper could boast “We endeavor to screw you to the max.” In the lower left corner of Page One there could be a mandatory space for corrections and complaints. It would say:
“If we erred by not lying enough, or not exposing you a sufficient number of times to the same false story, send a complaint to the Society for Journalists. If they do not act to your satisfaction you should take it up with the Department of Defense.”
Anyway, for the record, here follows my Rumor Mil article of October 14, 2015:
A “killer bee story” is one that a newspaper’s staff person makes up as news. It could be a human-interest story, or a scare story, or anything else.
One reason for a writer to concoct a story could be that he or she can’t find enough real stories and has to fill a few more columns. Another reason could be that he or she is trained to produce disinformation that will lead a readers thinking in the wrong direction.
Lately I have come across stories that I think did not really happen. I am shy to mention them to friends, for fear of getting the eye-roll. But a few of them have been publicly proven to be false stories, so I think it is time we settled on a policy of how to deal with the newspapers that purvey them.
When Can You Lie?
My understanding of “freedom of speech” is that, as an individual, you have a right to say what you want. Some exceptions are that you must not tell a lie that leads to a calamity. You mustn’t shout “Fire” in a theatre, as this could cause a stampede.
You must not lie under oath; indeed perjury is a crime. As for applying to receive a benefit, such as a social security payment, you may see in the fine print that lying about your age will lead to an end to the benefit.
Generally, the punishment for lying is that you lose your reputation. If people cease to trust you they will stop doing business with you. They also may be very angry with you if your lying causes them some disadvantage, or disappointment.
What about Truth in Advertising?
Say you buy a package of envelopes that indicates on the outside that there are 20 envelopes in the pack. You get home and find that there are only 18. Or you read the label of a cake mix that says ‘gluten free,’ but you decide to have it tested and discover it is not gluten free. Who owes you truth?
There is an understanding that it’s human nature for a merchant to try to take advantage of customers. The basic guide is “Caveat emptor!” – Buyer beware! But as part of the consumer rights movement of the 1960s there came to be some laws about “truth in advertising.” These laws help you feel safer when you buy something.
In the example of the gluten-free food, it would also be understood that the manufacturer of the cake mix has a duty not to cause harm. If you were on a strict gluten-free diet and were harmed by the cake-mix company’s deceit, you could bring a civil action against it. This, though, would mean suing for the harm caused, not for the lying as such.
The fact is that we do not have general laws against lying. Religions cover it, for example in the Ten Commandments. Presumably it would be too hard to enforce such law. And, in the last few hundred years, it has been recognized that free speech is a benefit to society. We allow lying as part of the deal by which a person “tries something out.”
What Is a Newspaper For?
Whom does a newspaper represent? In the 1800s people circulated ideas by handing out, or selling, journals and pamphlets. These were usually understood to put a particular point of view. The editor or owner made no claim to being a fair spokesman for all of society.
Gradually there came to be big newspapers. These printed the news of the day. The paper also included some standard information that people wanted to be briefed on. Typically a paper mentions the day’s weather, movie schedules, sports scores, and death notices.
Such information encourages people to purchase the paper. Advertising is another source of income to pay for the paper’s production. The readers usually understand that if a business bought a lot of ad space in the paper, the editor will not be inclined to print any criticism of that business.
Eventually the big papers started to puff themselves up as “the voice of the people.” They laid claims to being objective and nonpartisan. This was quite a change and was not accompanied by any debate.
Is It Acceptable for a Newspaper To Lie?
Whose job is it to decide whether to let a newspaper get away with lying? The newspapers today mostly belong to huge corporations that appear to have power to do what they want. By the middle of the 20th century it was commonplace for a newspaper to define its obligations to the public.
This was done right on the masthead, as when the New York Times said it will deliver the news “without fear or favor.” That is, it claims to be unafraid to crack down (in print) on the baddies of society, and it will not be saying nice things about certain individuals in exchange for a fee (or other type of favor).
Such boasts may well have been lies from Day One. It may have been the intention of papers like the New York Times to perform a big task for the powerful. So instead of identifying society’s baddies, the paper may have done a great job of hiding them. And the paper may have enhanced the reputations of leaders whose aim was to harm us.
All the while, though, and continuing until today, it has been standard for media to take a moral pose. The newspaper “helps” society and considers lying to be unacceptable!
What about Codes of Ethics for Journalists?
Some of the professions have published a code of ethics for their members. In the case of doctors, the code forbids them to do things they could otherwise do. For instance, they promise in the code that they won’t take sexual advantage of patients (in fact they are not allowed to date a patient). They promise not to prescribe morphine for family members. And so forth.
The point of such a published code is to make the public feel safe – and it thereby helps the doctor make a living. The journalists’ profession also publishes a code, with some very high-minded ideals. These are meant to restrain the individual newsperson, and also to give out the impression that all is very proper.
An individual newspaper sometimes has its own code, but the profession as a whole has agreed on one, such as through the [Australian] Journalists Association. What the members are agreeing to, is to be held accountable for breaches. It may be that a journalist’s boss has asked him or her to do the naughty deed, but the way the code is set up, the journalist is accountable.
Still, who is going to discipline them? In the case of doctors, breach of ethics can result in a doctor losing his medical license. There is no such punishment available for the journalist. Note: the newspaper or the profession may have an ethical rule about printing a correction. Citizens can make a fuss and get the paper to correct an error. And of course one can sue for defamation.
Is a Killer Bee Story Unethical?
Now back to killer-bee stories. One of Rupert Murdoch’s biographers revealed that a Murdoch paper in Texas wrote an untrue story that the Texas area would soon be visited by killer bees coming across the Gulf of Mexico. It’s unlikely that folks got very upset when they learned the story was false. After all, you’d be glad that no killer bees showed up (though possibly such a scare could hurt the tourist trade).
Naomi Wolf has recently said, during a meeting of Liberty Forum in New Hampshire, that she read a story, in the US, of a water-skier being accidentally decapitated. The location was a lake near Mexico. As Ms Wolf has Facebook friends in Mexico, she asked if they had heard anything about it. They said no.
She then complained to the media outlet [CNN]. She asked whether they had two sources for the story “as is required by the ethics of journalism.” They said they would check, and subsequently they confessed that they had no proof of the story. In other words it was a killer-bee episode; no water skier was decapitated.
In this case, there wasn’t any particular aggrieved party. No one would have wanted to be bothered filing a complaint about such a lie. Yet once we found out it was a lie, we would naturally start to feel doubt about other things. So the following harm was done: it caused some destabilization of the citizenry. I think it would lessen people’s valuing of truth.
It’s Much More Than Killer Bees Now
Recall in Orwell’s “1984” that people are not supposed to be given true information. Indeed the main character in Orwell’s book, Winston Smith, works at the “Ministry of Truth” where it’s his job to find anything in newspapers or magazines that conflicts with the Party line. He gets rid of the offending item by putting it down the memory hole where it is burned.
I think it’s time for us to grow up and realize that the Year 1984 is very much with us. We are being subjected to huge amounts of disinformation. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, now make their living at something similar to the “Ministry of Truth.” They are tasked with fooling the public.
Surely this is a great onslaught against us all and deserves more attention. To have a code of ethics for journalists is meaningless, unless every journalist were to take it seriously. I presume they do not. I presume the majority of journalists have long since decided that they must follow whatever the boss says.
What To Do?
If you agree with me that the goal is to stop this Orwellian business, we have to find ways to do that. Is there any help from the law? Yes, if the person lies to cover up a crime, say murder, the lying itself is a crime. Cover-up is specifically a crime in the US. A journalist who lied about a crime could also be charged as an accessory to the crime. We needn’t settle for the much milder accusation of “a breach of journalists ethics.”
We should also look behind the scenes at the reason(s) why a particular killer-bee story is being promulgated. I think it is safe to say that the false story of the hijackings of 9-11 was intended to grease the skids for a war in the Middle East.
In that case, we saw an American president propose, and the US Congress agree to, a war against Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan began on October 8, 2001, less than a month after 9-11. The stated purpose was to get back at a man, Osama bin Laden, citizen of Saudi Arabia, who was reportedly living in Afghanistan. We all know that the plans to attack a country have to be made more than a month in advance.
I am not trying to open the issue here of Congress’s ‘sin’ in participating in the falseness (though sin it surely was). I want to see if we have a way of controlling this, in future, by attention to the media’s habit of producing killer-bee stories. Surely some persons in media deserve to be punished for having “greased the skids” for a war, no?
There is at least one relevant crime that I know of, with which Americans can be charged, namely treason, or “accessory to the crime of treason.” Treason is a federal crime in the US. It is also a common law crime in 49 of the 50 states, but let’s just consider the federal crime. It is codified at 18 USC 2381:
“Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
You may ask how the journalist “levies war against the United States.” I would say that if she made up a story, about any aspect of the hijackings, she contributed to the US’s engagement in an inappropriate war. How does treason come into it? The US Constitution says: “ Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
The pronoun “them” means the states, or the people in the states. One could levy war against “them” by, say, poisoning the fields of Wisconsin. Or one could treasonously levy war against the US by placing its soldiers in a situation where they will be killed – for no good reason.
Many US soldiers did in fact die in the war against Afghanistan. Whose fault is it? Primarily it is Congress’s fault – not the abstract institution “Congress,” but the members of it who voted for war. I think they knew that the 9-11 story was false. They should have said “Stop lying!”
But one does not always have to go for the biggest guilty party. One can look around at accomplices and accessories. For example, in an armed robbery we can charge the driver of the getaway car with the crime of being an accomplice in the robbery.
I see no reason – except our state of bafflement – why journalists cannot be charged with making up false stories that lead to the death of their countrymen. It is treason or at least accessory before the fact of treason.
An Australian Story
On September 25, 2014, Australia’s parliament, which meets in the afternoon, was to consider enacting some new anti-terrorist laws. Australia has not seen much terrorism within its borders. You could say the parliamentarians needed something to point to, as a justification for new legislation.
[Here I recounted the Bella Vista incident. See Gumshoe.]
Australians need to trace this down. If there was a bruised sailor, let him come forward. If there was not, let the police media person come forward and say why he wrote it. Very likely he will say that he was told to do so. Oh? Is that in his job description? Making up crimes that did not happen?
For us to take no action on this matter is to say that we approve of any killer bee stories that the media cares to publish. We’d be saying that we welcome journalists to condition us to dishonesty as a way of life.
We don’t want to do that, do we?
Note: Here is Naomi Wolf’s talk, in which she describes the false stories as “part of a process leading to a closed society.”
Just think about that.
— Mary W Maxwell is co-author, with Dee McLachlan, of a new book, Truth in Journalism, aimed mainly at students of journalism.