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The Year of the Big Lie: Six Outrageous Falsehoods That Took Flight in 2010

In a political year dominated by tales of polarization, a flurry of themes emerged as I contemplated the year just past — the year of the Tea Party, the year that psycho became the new normal (Glenn Beck), the year in which info leaks rocked the world (WikiLeaks), the year that saw accomplishments defying conventional wisdom (Obama). But at the root of all of these themes lies the Lie; all other themes speak to either its advancement or in its defiance.

In a political year dominated by tales of polarization, a flurry of themes emerged as I contemplated the year just past — the year of the Tea Party, the year that psycho became the new normal (Glenn Beck), the year in which info leaks rocked the world (WikiLeaks), the year that saw accomplishments defying conventional wisdom (Obama). But at the root of all of these themes lies the Lie; all other themes speak to either its advancement or in its defiance.

In the politics of 2010, the Big Lie, in both its gigantic and more attenuated forms, was almost always deployed in the service of corporations. It may not be so obvious at the surface, especially when the Lie dubs the nation’s first black president a racist, or labels a Jewish holocaust survivor an anti-Semite, but the ultimate aim of the Lie in these contexts is to discredit purveyors of ideas and policies that certain corporate leaders and shills find threatening to their quest for all the world’s riches.

What follows is a mere sampling of some of the defining lies of 2010, not presented in any particular order of importance, for they’re all of a piece.

The Big Lie

The Big Lie theory goes like this: A gigantic, audacious lie is more likely to be believed by the masses than a small one if it is repeated often enough. First articulated in the pages of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler (who attributed the practice, of course, to Jews) and deployed as a tactic by Nazi master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the Big Lie went mainstream in 2010, as its propagators on the Right were accepted by big media as respectable articulators of a legitimate point of view. These include Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and numerous other Republican officials and Tea Party leaders who, in our first Big Lie, refer to the 2010 passage of health-care reform legislation as “a government takeover of health care.” The non-partisan named this assertion the lie of the year — an award that will likely have no impact on the issue’s framing, since media figures generally fail to challenge the assertion when it’s made.

Sometimes Big Lies are personal, targeting a figure whose appearance or background plays to the prejudices of a particular constituency. An attempt to lay just one such Big Lie to rest finds Neil Abercrombie, the newly elected Democratic governor of Hawaii, seeking to release data on the birth of President Barack Obama in his state 49 years ago in an effort to appease birthers — those who have bought into the lie that Obama was born in Africa, not America, which would make him ineligible for the presidency. Really, Abercrombie needn’t bother: the Tea Partiers who doubt the president’s birthright will never be satisfied with any level of proof. They’re far too invested in the lie.

Perhaps that’s why Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing Web site impresario, author of our second Big Lie of the year, thought he could get away with targeting an unknown U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, through the creative editing of a video taken of Sherrod’s remarks to a local NAACP gathering.

Brietbart was ripping mad when the NAACP passed a resolution at its national convention that called on Tea Party leaders to repudiate racism within its ranks. The clip was edited to convey the opposite message of Sherrod’s remarks, which addressed how she overcame her own prejudice against a white farmer she assisted in the course of her job duties. But before Breitbart’s lie was exposed, the Obama administration fired Sherrod (who was later offered another job at USDA). The story immediately became about the video clip as Breitbart presented it, and Sherrod’s firing. It wasn’t until the next day that the Lie was exposed.

Breitbart himself demonstrated little chagrin at having posted a distorted view of Sherrod’s remarks — after all, he had achieved much of his desired result: damage to the Obama administration. In rushing to fire Sherrod before an investigation could even begin, the administration signaled that Breitbart’s Lie was truth.

In essence, Breitbart’s Big Lie was of a particular sort: those designed to prove that one’s opponent is guilty of the same sin of which your side stands accused. From the early days of the Tea Party movement in 2009, aided by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, there’s been a concerted attempt to paint Obama as a racist, a black man with “a deep-seated hatred for white people,” in Beck’s words. As a representative of the Obama administration and a speaker at an NAACP event, the Sherrod clip, had it not been exposed as a misrepresentation, would have killed two birds with one stone. Yet, even thus exposed, Breitbart remains an influential figure, the incident simply plowed, in an oily heap, to the side of the highway of hatred he travels.

Glenn Beck, of course, is the master of the Big Lie. That each lie Beck tells is more outrageous than the next does nothing to impede his success: in fact, his outrageousness fuels his success. Just last month, marking Big Lie number three for our purposes, Beck falsely accused the liberal financier George Soros of being a Nazi collaborator during World War II, when in fact, the Jewish Soros is a Holocaust survivor. In a three-part series on Soros, Beck framed his attack in language drawn from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, calling his series “The Puppet Master,” and referring to Soros as a “bloodsucker.” While this caused great consternation in the progressive media world, protests in the world of mainstream media were not sustained enough to force Beck from his perch at Fox News, where he serves as community organizer for Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation, Fox’s parent company.

Having made health-care reform his signature issue, Obama was ripe for this kind of attack from the likes of David Koch, the billionaire who founded Americans For Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which have actively promoted the Lie that Obama’s insurance-company-friendly reform actually amounts to a government takeover of the health-care system. Like Murdoch, who is also a billionaire, Koch opposes government regulation of any kind — be it of the health-care industry, the energy industry or the financial sector. Koch also happens to be a top executive at Koch Industries, the company founded by his father, a founder of the John Birch Society, that is rooted in the oil and gas sectors.

George Soros is also a billionaire, but one who favors government regulation, and puts his billions to work in the non-profit sector to fund organizations that support liberal efforts to regulate industry. So Soros became a prime target of the Big Lie.

The Little Big Lie

Perhaps the most pernicious outcome of society’s resignation in 2010 to a media landscape blanketed by the Big Big Lie is the proliferation of smaller Big Lies which, taken in the context of enormous Big Lies, come to be seen as not such big deals. Take, for instance, Big Lie number four: the assertion by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, that Obama’s recent trip to India was costing American taxpayers $200 million per day. Media dutifully quoted Bachmann’s lie, some even noting that there was no evidence to support it. The media’s interest sustained only as much as a 24-hour news cycle would allow. Just another instance of Bachmann being Bachmann.

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Or take, for instance, the right-wing trope — Big Lie number four — that Obama cannot speak without a teleprompter, that he uses the teleprompter far more often than his predecessor, the verbally challenged George W. Bush. It matters not that Obama has proven, at news conference after news conference, that he does quite well answering questions off the cuff, or that his use of the teleprompter is on a par with that of previous presidents. In January 2010, Obama so deftly fielded questions lobbed at him by members of Congress at a Republican retreat that party leaders conceded it had been bad strategy for their side to allow the exchange to be televised. Yet Tea Partiers remain convinced that the black president is too stupid to speak without a machine scrolling text presumably written by white staffers.

And, coming in just under the wire for 2010 after having been an ongoing 2009 theme, thanks to Sarah Palin, is Big Lie number six: the notion that voluntary counseling for end-of-life care that is reimbursed by Medicare amounts to a government “death panel” designed to “pull the plug on Grandma.”

The Media’s Role

No Big Lie strategy can work without the dissemination of the Lie by mainstream media and in this regard, the media have been exemplary — not in a wittingly conspiratorial way, but in a, gee-these-sensational-claims-will-really-boost-our-ratings kind of a way. After all, they too have corporate masters to serve.

The success of the whole Big Lie scheme, it seems, works here on something of a paradox. The rise of right-wing media, which is always the amplifier — if not the creator — of such claims, came to pass because of the distrust of mainstream media by a sizable chunk of the American public. However much that distrust existed throughout the history of the republic, it really picked up steam once network news was removed from its role, in the 1970s and ’80s, as a public service provided by media entities that use public resources — the airwaves — as the vehicle for reaping profits, and news programs were made into profit centers by the corporations that owned the networks.

For their part, conservative personalities played on the jingoism of their adherents, especially during the Vietnam War, to claim that the media were hopelessly liberal in their bias, since they were reporting news that turned the American people against the war — news, incidentally, that often exposed government lies about body counts and the ostensible success of the war. Daniel Ellsberg’s historic leak of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times brought such falsehoods into brutal relief, much as WikiLeaks did earlier this year with its release of communications and classified video from the war in Afghanistan.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, mainstream news producers and editors have been on the defensive, always needing to prove they’re not biased toward liberals. This leads many mainstream outlets to pick up and amplify the themes advanced in right-wing media, while giving little play to those advanced in progressive media. Aiding this process is the fact that the messaging shops of the Right are more adept at framing issues in pithy and emotional ways.

Take the term “death panels.” I’ll bet you’re thinking, what’s that doing in a 2010 year-end piece? That’s so 2009. Think again. Just this week, the term resurfaced with a vengeance when the New York Times reported that the Obama administration, having failed to win inclusion of coverage for end-of-life counseling in the health-care reform legislation that passed in March (largely thanks to the Right’s death-panel framing), is changing Medicare regulations so that doctors will be reimbursed for offering the counseling.

In a segment of “Anderson Cooper 360” that aired on CNN this week, the introductory piece leading into a discussion of the new rules included, in the course of less than four minutes, nine mentions of the phrase “death panel” by the guest host and in clips of politicians discussing the subject (h/t, AlterNet SpeakEasy blogger Linda Milazzo). The graphic for the story read: “‘Death Panel’ Resurrection.”

Congratulations, CNN. You are an accessory to the Big Lie.

Note that CNN is owned by AOL/Time Warner.

And take the postscript to the Breitbart/Sherrod episode. Was Andrew Breitbart hounded out of the polite company of mainstream media? Hardly. He was hired by ABC News to provide commentary on the midterm elections — a deal that was canceled only after public outcry from media watchdogs.

Note that ABC News is owned by the Disney Corporation.

Newspapers are hardly immune to the pressures of the Big Lie, which often turns up in nuanced ways. In the final days of the battle for health-care reform, USA Today ran a front-page story headlined “Health care law too costly, most say.”

Pounded by right-wing messengers, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that there was no public support for an optional public health-care plan, despite ample polling showing that indeed a majority of Americans supported a public option.

In fact, the very USA Today/Gallup poll on which that poll was based revealed continued majority support for a public option — a fact that was mentioned nowhere in the text of the piece, but appeared only in a tiny graphic that ran alongside the text. Without stating the reasons that two-thirds of Americans thought the plan too costly, USA Today reporter Susan Page never articulated the fact that many of those Americans likely thought the law too expensive in light of the fact that it did not offer a publicly financed health-care plan, thus reinforcing the right’s Big Lie.

Note that USA Today is owned by the Gannett Co., Inc., which owns 100 media entities, including newspapers and television stations.

All of the corporations mentioned here as parent companies of media outlets are publicly traded — hence the lack of accountability to anybody other than shareholders. The axiom at local news stations has long been, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Murder and mayhem hold the attention of viewers. In the world of mainstream national news, there’s a new axiom taking hold: “If it lies, it flies” — as long as the Lie is sensational enough to keep viewers tuned in. And the Right is genius at turning out just those sorts of lies.

Because the Big Lie relies not on facts for its impact, but the counter-factual, it cannot be refuted by empirical data. If progressives are to thwart the momentum of the Big Lie’s suffocating expansion, they must offer a viable counter-narrative — stories that speak to people’s souls, emotions and experiences — something more than a raft of facts and policy solutions. We know the true story of our people. We must learn how to tell it.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet’s Washington bureau chief.

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