Washington’s cynical misinformation game

Commentary: distortion now a standard part of political discourse on health care
by Wendell Potter

In most of our country’s major institutions, we have little tolerance for cheating and lying. Whether it’s the court system, schools, businesses, even our sports teams, we impose stiff sanctions against those who deceive us to gain some advantage.

iwatch newsIf convicted of lying on the witness stand, you’ll pay a fine and possibly wind up in jail. If caught cheating on a test, you’ll probably fail the course or worse. At the University of Virginia, a breach of the school’s honor code “has but a single penalty: immediate expulsion from the university.”

In 2009, Bank of America agreed to pay a $33 million fine after the SEC accused it of lying. Just last month, a federal judge ordered that same bank to pay a $1.27 billion fine after a jury found it liable for bad loans that were part of a “fraudulent and reckless” mortgage-lending program.

Some of our most famous athletes have been stripped of their medals and banned for life from participating on sports teams for doping and lying about it.

Our religions condemn such deception. In Proverbs we are told that “a lying tongue” and “a false witness who pours out lies” are among the seven things that the Lord hates and considers detestable.

Yet there is one arena in which misleading the public not only is abided but is the norm: politics. In fact, much of what constitutes political discourse in this country is now built on a foundation of dishonesty. One of the most effective—and perfectly legal—ways to win votes and influence public policy these days is to pour millions of dollars into deception-based campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion.

The most recent evidence: a National Journal article about a new tactic used by the National Republican Congressional Committee to attack Democratic candidates. Earlier this year, the NRCC created several fake Democratic candidate websites. The organization’s latest effort is a brand new set of deceptive websites, this time designed to look like local news sources.

The NRCC has created about two dozen “faux news sites,” the National Journal reported, all of which feature articles that “begin in the impartial voice of a political fact-checking site, hoping to lure in readers.” After a few such paragraphs, the articles “gradually morph into more biting language.”

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The Center for Public Integrity was founded in 1989 by Charles Lewis. We are one of the country's oldest and largest nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organizations. Our mission: To serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions, using the tools of investigative journalism.

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