The end of Donald Trump’s presidency has been occasion for lots of celebrating and even more commentary about the potential of reestablishing norms in Washington DC, resurrecting trust in public institutions. Yet the normal state of affairs in Washington is ruled by lobbying and public relations firms that thrive on the absence of truth, utilizing lies as strategic tools to prevent measures that could harm their bottom line.
Donald Trump lies to a ridiculous degree. But the factual balkanization of the American public is the result of our democracy being hacked long ago primarily in the name of profit. The major perpetrators are widely known — the tobacco industry, fossil fuel companies, big sugar, and the military industrial complex — and all find easy vehicles for their lies in the corporate media.
The link between tobacco and lung cancer was first suspected by the medical community as early as 1912. By the 1950s when John Hill, founder of public relations giant Hill and Knowlton, pitched the tobacco giants on a public relations strategy of deception that would continue for more than four decades, it was widely accepted in the medical community that smoking was dangerous. Yet John Hill understood as long as big tobacco could provide paid experts and false studies from a fake think tank, the media would cover their lies as facts.
The tactic worked. Thousands of memos, now digitized in the Tobacco Archive, show just how the plan was put into action. For example, in 1954 here is how an industry funded think tank, which was merely a cut out for Hill and Knowlton, dealt with a potential story on Edward R. Murrow’s television program:
A conference was held with Edward R. Murrow [and] Fred Friendly, his producer … at the Tobacco Industry Research Committee offices in the Empire State Building…. The Murrow staff emphasized the intention to present a coldly objective program with every effort made to tell the story as it stands today, with special effort toward balanced perspective and concrete steps to show that the facts still are not established and must be sought by scientific means such as the research activities the Tobacco Industry Research Committee will support. Mr. Murrow was assured of the continued cooperation from the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to the extent possible under the scope of the TIRC program.
Hill and Knowlton would go on to attempt the same strategies for the asbestos industry, claiming their products were safe even as thousands died of deadly cancers from exposure. The firm also peddled the lie in the lead up to the first Iraq War that Saddam Hussein’s troops were murdering babies in incubators in Kuwait. This was specifically designed to enrage the US public, providing in part a humanitarian justification for war.
Hill and Knowlton is just the tip of this iceberg. The fossil fuel industry, which has known that their product was causing the warming of the planet since the late 1970s, funded think tanks and PR firms to deny climate change. They, like the tobacco industry before them, convinced the objective media they had to cover both sides of “a debate” even though one didn’t exist. This strategy led to a media environment where the average news consumer could be led to believe that climate change was an open question in the scientific community.
The fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry, was rewarded for their behavior. It has only been in the past several years in which mainstream media sources routinely recognize climate science without feeling the need to provide objectivity.
Beyond the immediate damage caused to public debate on these specific issues, this strategy of lies left our society without any stipulated facts on which to base a conversation. It is in that world where Donald Trump can make false statements about COVID-19 and voter fraud, and half of the country believes him.
Donald Trump’s perpetuation of voter fraud lies and his claims of stolen elections are nothing new. John Fund of the National Review, and Hans von Spakovsky, of the Heritage Foundation have been peddling similar falsehoods, which have been carried by conservative media for years.
In 2012, Jane Mayer wrote a seminal piece in the New Yorker calling out the lies spread about voter fraud, in which the ultimate goal is to prevent minorities, young people, and other groups demographically aligned with the Democratic party from exercising their franchise — yet they are still welcome as media commentators.
Donald Trump is merely coasting on their work.
K Street knows and understands this. They employ scores of people to draft fake studies to peddle on issues ranging from minimum wage to sugar. Their peddling of falsehoods has allowed this bifurcation to exist.
Donald Trump’s exit from the White House won’t end the lies. It might draw the leaders of the Republican Party back into a more socially polite framework. But corporate America widely understands that the best way to stop regulation and prevent progress on progressive issues is to create a world where truth doesn’t exist, where cultural grievances are used to fuel profit, and where Democrats and Republicans working in lobbying and PR firms profit from the distribution of lies.