Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 16, 1991
(with Norman Solomon)
The Culture of Lying
New York - David Duke's presidential campaign stands to benefit from the same culture of lying that has helped the former Klansman in the past few months.
Reporters and pundits periodically decry the culture of lying, but rarely acknowledge their own complicity in it.
Mr. Duke is hardly unique as a recent beneficiary tolerant of deceit. This fall we witnessed a series of televised spectacles in which it was commonplace to hear outright lying, distortion and bizarre reinterpretations of reality.
Public figures with long histories succeeded in reinvesting themselves -- thanks in part to overly acquiescent media.
Clarence Thomas spent days telling a Senate committee in September that dozens of lengthy unambiguous excerpts from his various speeches and articles were not what they sounded like -- the words of a far-right ideologue.
Indeed, Justice Thomas made out as if he had no firm position on any subject. Under oath, he claimed to have never discussed Roe v. Wade with anyone in all the years since that Supreme Court decision legalized abortion.
Justice Thomas kept straining credulity, maintaining he didn't know that his friend and political mentor, Jay Parker, was a paid lobbyist in Washington for the government of South Africa.
Nor did Justice Thomas acknowledge -- or the media report -- that while on the appeals court, he failed to excuse himself from a $ 10 million case involving Ralston Purina, and ended up ruling in favor of that company, owned by the family of his patron, Sen. John Danforth (R- Mo.).
To someone not steeped in -- and accepting of -- the culture of lying, Clarence Thomas's testimony was simply not credible.
But this observation wasn't uttered in most of the national media.
In fact, when Anita Hill came forward later with her charges, television's pundits kept describing events as a standoff between two highly credible people.
What about Robert M. Gates, the new CIA director? He testified under oath that he couldn't remember meetings in which momentous events connected to Iran-contra were discussed.
He claimed he never slanted intelligence to fit the Ronald Reagan view of the Soviet Union, but merely interpreted the data differently than almost every Soviet expert in the agency. An independent press would have offered us blunt reporting on Mr. Gates's contradictions. Instead we got euphemisms.
The lead paragraph of one New York Times story told us that the hearings raised questions about Mr. Gates's "memory" -- not his integrity. Another Times article said Mr. Gates was "forgetful of crucial facts," an apparent euphemism for lying.
What about David Duke? He sought Louisiana's governorship on three issues: discrimination against white people, crime and welfare recipients, who in Louisiana are mostly African-Americans. In short, he ran a campaign against black people.
How was Mr. Duke handled on the McLaughlin Group, the "show of shows" for America's pundits? Host John McLaughlin bellowed the question: "Is Duke a racist today?" And the response from the group's token liberal, Jack Germond, was hemming and hawing and finally: "I don't know whether in his heart he's a racist or not. How do I know that?"
If television's "liberal" pundits can't even tell us whether David Duke is a racist, how will they help us on that question when it comes to George Bush, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) or other politicians?
On several national TV shows, Mr. Duke has been given fairly free reign to reinvent himself: Oh no, when I seemed to be praising Adolph Hitler, I was merely praising the great national unity Germany achieved in the 1930s.
Sure I ran the newspaper that proposed evicting blacks to homelands in the South, and Jews to Manhattan and Long Island, but I'm not responsible for every article in my paper.
Sure I sold books out of my state legislative office a few years ago about the genetic inferiority of blacks, Jews as the source of all evil, the Holocaust as a Zionist hoax - but I sold liberal books as well.
Mr. Duke's reinventing of himself reached its peak in a remarkably friendly chat for a full hour on CNN's "Larry King Live."
And Phil Donahue, eager to get Mr. Duke on his show last month, agreed not to show any photos or footage of him in Ku Klux Klan robes.
Backstage media makeovers have become an accepted part of the political process. News coverage often treats them as little more than a show-biz ritual.
But the culture of lying is not just cosmetics. It has much more to do with George Orwell than Christian Dior. And if journalists allow truth to be flushed down a national memory hole, then David Duke will have little to fear from America's news media.