Charles Lewis headshot and 935 Lies book cover

935 Lies: what journalism learned from the War in Iraq

The Bush administration made 935 lies to extend the specious connection between the attacks of Sept. 11 and the American invasion of Iraq. So says longtime investigative journalist and journalism champion Charles Lewis in his reporting and 2014 book entitled “935 Lies.”

Lewis uses the book to champion the importance of investigative journalism, the role of journalists more generally and an engaged citizenry. Lewis is part of a class of journalists whose careers spanned the golden age of American journalism, when the business models worked and audience reach was an essential monopoly. That has all changed, yet his perspective is still welcome. The book is drier than I expected, but the mix professional memoir and treatise on journalism was full of insight.

Below I share my notes for future reference.

My notes:

  • Carl Bernstein: “the best obtainable version of the truth”
  • “Political language,” Orwell wrote, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
  • Hannah Arendt “objective enemies”
  • The Pentagon Papers reflect the high water mark of battle between power and journalism
  • Author uses the phrase “truth seekers”
  • Emila Zola “Truth is on the march and nothing can stop it”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson: “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please-you can never have both.”
  • Tim Weiner: “Tthe war in Vietnam began with political lies banded on fake intelligence.” And it was part of a changing relationship with American power (JFK, LBJ, Nixon )
  • LBJ told reporters off record: “I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”
  • Murrey Marder haunted by publishing an anonymous source about Gulf of Tonkin attack
  • If Stone didn’t interview insiders but read government document
  • John Mueller’s 1973 book “War, presidents, and public opinion”: support for Vietnam war fell 15% every time casualties increased by a factor of ten (but no polling directly saying TV news turned American opinion against the war)
  • One study said of 2,300 Vietnam war stories only 76 showed “true violence,” including soldiers who had been killed or wounded
  • Seymour Hersh couldn’t get his story about My Lai massacre printed. An editor at LIFE said “it was out of the question.” Finally it was published in a startup wire service in the St Louis Dispatch. (My note: we need diversity of outlets, including local news)
  • William Fulbright in his 1966 book: “Power tends to confuse itself with virtue”
  • David Wise in The Politics of Lying; “institutionalized lying” is many layers of government secrecy. “Lying and secrecy are two sides of the same coin”
  • Lord Day and Lord law firm bailed on NYT during the pentagon papers (then closed)
  • Nixon was when the faith was broken that all men were treated equal before the law
  • Woodward: Sure we were writing watergate stories for all our readers but really two critical ones: Judge Sirica and Senator Sam Ervin, both were Post subscribers and both said they changed behaviors because of those stories
  • “For example, Life magazine photographer Flip Schulke “saw a small child being roughed up by a sheriff’s posse in Selma, Alabama,” Gene Roberts recalled.
  • “And [Schulke] dropped his camera, let it dangle around his neck while he went to the rescue of a child. And Martin Luther King heard about it, and said, you know, we need to talk about what our different roles are. I have got plenty of civil rights demonstrators. When you stopped shooting today, the world missed what you would have captured in your camera. And that’s more important than wading into the fray.”
  • In 2005 on the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday John Lewis: “ I have often said that, without the media, the civil rights movement would’ve been with bird without wings.”
  • Jimmy’s world
  • Morton Mintz’s coverage of tobacco was held back by Woodward who regretted not doing more corporate coverage than government (where he thought all the power was)
  • In 1970, Nixon signed cigarette advertising law limiting tv and radio so ads in newspapers: Sales went from $64.2m in 1970 to $157.6m in 1971; $10.9b between 1976-2008; $649m in 1981
  • Carl Bernstein said the beginning of “idiot culture” came in 1990 when Newsday led with Donald Trump and Marla Maples instead of Nelson Mandela being released and WWII allies unifying Germany
  • “Online knowledge clusters” of the future, Iike Wikipedia but more expert and up to date
  • “Journalism itself must also continue to evolve. We journalists need to become less arrogant about our status as filters of information; we need to be more ready to acknowledge the value of authoritative investigative information unearthed by others, from expert specialists to ordinary citizens; and we need to learn to collaborate more closely with one another and with professionals from many fields in our collective search for truth. For this reason, I have proposed the creation of a new multidisciplinary academic field called Accountability Studies. Ideally, it would involve professors with different types of accountability knowledge and expertise from throughout the university, and it would enable students to earn a specialized degree in the field. “
  • “Journalists alone cannot hold those in power accountable for their actions. We need an informed and engaged public to demand transparency and truthfulness.”
  • “Citizens must become more than passive observers of politics; they must become active participants, demanding truth and accountability from their leaders.”
  • “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It requires the active engagement of citizens who are willing to question authority and fight for the truth.”
  • “The fight for the truth is not the exclusive domain of journalists; it is the responsibility of every citizen who values democracy and transparency.”
  • “If we want to create a world in which truth is valued over lies, we must each take responsibility for seeking out and promoting the truth in our own spheres of influence.”
  • “Powerful people have been telling us lies for centuries, and we’ve been believing them for just as long.”
  • “The truth doesn’t always set you free; sometimes it just makes you really, really mad.”
  • “The lies that are allowed to fester and take root in the public consciousness have the power to shape our worldviews, our values, and even our destinies.”
  • “The only thing more dangerous than a lie is a lie that goes unchallenged.”
  • “When a society can no longer trust its leaders or its institutions, it becomes vulnerable to all manner of demagogues and charlatans.”
  • “The truth is only as powerful as the people who are willing to fight for it.”

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