For lies to successfully masquerade as news, they need help. They need accessories to the crime against truth.
In two ways that have the power to shock, even in this almost shockproof era, lies are getting plenty of help.
Infowars, that cesspool of destructive conspiracy theories, on Monday received a temporary credential to attend White House press briefings. Yes, the very organization headed by the repugnant Alex Jones — known to scream falsehoods at the top of his lungs to his radio and webcast audience — was entrusted by the executive branch to bring news to American citizens.
In the past, please recall, what constituted “news” at Infowars included the following: that 9/11 was planned and executed by the U.S. government; that President Barack Obama was not an American citizen; and that the massacre of small children at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax carried out by actors.
Infowars’ inclusion (even if only temporarily) in the White House press corps is disgusting.
But no more disgusting than the lies that Fox News continues to spread about Seth Rich, a 27-year-old man who was fatally shot last summer in Washington.
To hear Fox’s Sean Hannity tell it, this was an inside job by the Democratic National Committee, where Rich worked: retribution by the Hillary Clinton camp for his sharing insider emails with WikiLeaks.
The theory has been thoroughly debunked by Oliver Darcy at CNN, among others, and Rich’s family has demanded that Fox retract and apologize. To the reported embarrassment of its own staff, it took Fox days to do the right thing. (Fox finally retracted the story Tuesday afternoon , and Tuesday night Hannity claimed that “out of respect for the family’s wishes, for now, I am not discussing the matter at this time.”)
But the damage has been done. On Sunday, former House speaker and Trump insider Newt Gingrich used Fox’s national platform to spread the lies, squandering what remains of his own credibility to make respectable people think it might be so. (Police think it may have been a robbery gone wrong.)
Decent people should shun both Hannity and Gingrich.
The Seth Rich lie has become the new Comet Ping Pong — another Washington-based conspiracy theory that ended in January with a gunman walking into a family-friendly pizza joint and firing shots as he “self-investigated” a supposed child-molestation plot involving Hillary Clinton.
Crazy, baseless and dangerous.
But if these two situations weren’t so insane, you could have called them predictable.
Because we have in the White House a president who was the most prominent promoter of the “birther” lies against Obama, which set out to delegitimize a presidency and inflame racial hatred.
Trump’s own record of truth-support is far from exemplary. This is a president whose secretary of state has excluded reporters from his public activities repeatedly and with impunity. The same president who conjures convenient figures to claim the largest inaugural crowds in history. The same president who reportedly told the director of the FBI of his desire to jail reporters, who has called the mainstream press “the enemy of the people,” and who cozies up to journalist-jailing heads of state.
“Fake news,” as it is erroneously called sometimes, seemed like a curiosity only a few months ago — something that errant Macedonian teenagers spread on Facebook for profit, and which might or might not have affected the presidential election. (For example, the claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump.)
Then it became the president’s favorite way to demean the reality-based press, and cast doubt on professional journalism.
“The speed with which the term became polarized and in fact a rhetorical weapon illustrates how efficient the conservative media machine has become,” George Washington University professor Nikki Usher told me earlier this year.
We know now that it’s far worse than that. Given tacit or explicit approval by the administration, this anti-truth movement — championed by Jones, a Trump shill — erodes reason and reality. And those are the basis for a functioning democracy.
The growing absence of truth should worry every American citizen.
“If everybody always lies to you . . . nobody believes anything any longer,” said Hannah Arendt, a German American political theorist. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
So if you’re wondering why bottom-dwelling conspiracy theorists are allowed in the briefing room, or why Trump insiders promote lies about a young man’s death, you have your answer.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan