False positives

Rep. Mark Amodei fussed with his tableware amid the noise of the coffee shop in south Reno. He was exasperated by my question.

I’d asked about the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a measure then before Congress that had generated a lot of grassroots opposition for its “counterterrorism” authority for the president on U.S. soil, including use of the military to arrest and detain U.S. citizens. In fact, the very day we spoke, a Reno resident had entered the race against Amodei’s reelection and cited the NDAA as part of his motivation.

The measure, I said to Amodei, “seems like an unusual thing for conservatives to support, that kind of power in a president’s hands.”

He looked pained and said, “Yes, but you know what?—and your statement represents a lot of the thinking—let me tell you my frustration. … There are two provisions in that bill that are highlighted—and we’ll get them to you—that, Dennis, just flat out says this does not apply to citizens of the United States.”

Amodei said this kind of thing happens often enough that he has learned to start looking for someone “manufacturing a perception.”

Later, we found this in the final language of NDAA: “The requirement to detain a person in military custody under this section does not extend to citizens of the United States.” There are also two other, similar clauses in the law and additional language protects legal aliens.

It should be noted, these are the very same passages opponents of the law say show the president has powers to indefinitely detain American citizens without charge.

Amodei, a Republican, is being afflicted by something that more often causes problems for Democrats—the widespread things we all “know” that, however, aren’t true.

Nuking the facts

Weapons of mass destruction are probably the best example of something bogus that we all “know” to be true, but WMD lies started long before Iraq. Nevada experienced it in the 1950s when, as a result of what U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah later called “a massive campaign to assure the public that no danger existed,” the public “knew” that atom tests within the United States were not a threat to public health. U.S. officials and their civilian contractors went to great and ethically challenged lengths—including letting people die—to make sure that nothing disrupted the tests. When U.S. Rep. Douglas Stringfellow of Utah demanded that the Atomic Energy Commission stop using the Nevada Test Site because it caused clouds of fallout to land in Utah, AEC scientists Alvin Graves and Jack Clark were sent to Las Vegas, Mesquite, St. George and Cedar City to mislead residents about the safety of tests. The Utah cities later developed high rates of cancers and leukemias.

It’s not as though reporters didn’t have plenty of reasons to investigate. In 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission admitted that atomic testing in southern Nevada was injuring livestock, which suggested that something about the tests was hazardous. In 1954, the AEC had Tonopah residents wearing “radiation badges.” The lack of curiosity of Nevada and national reporters was startling.

But those who bucked the government line faced consequences. When two Colorado scientists reported findings on radiation danger that conflicted with government claims, they were red-baited by the Hearst press and attacked by the governor of Colorado (“Blinded to science,” RN&R, March 2, 2007). When southern Nevada rancher Martha Bardoli Laird wrote to her U.S. senator about her fallout concerns, Sen. George Malone of Nevada questioned her patriotism.

U.S. Atomic Energy Commissioner Willard Libby said, “Exposures from fallout are very much smaller than those which would be required to produce observable effects in the population.” He was lying, and knew it. But the heat of the Cold War melted all the fuses, including journalism, that are supposed to safeguard a free society against its government. The cover-up of radiation danger was maintained. So since everyone “knew” the tests were safe, U.S. policies allowed actions and practices that threatened—and took—lives.

Relying on conclusions that are intuitive rather than proven has pitfalls. The war on drugs is based almost entirely on things we “know” instead of things we know.

Criminal coverage

U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei with his press aide, Brian Baluta.

On June 17, 1971, President Nixon, in an effort to get his war on drugs approved, reported to Congress that illicit drug use caused crime amounting to “more than $2 billion every year.” As former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum later pointed out, that was about 154 percent of all property crime in the United States, drug-related and otherwise. The next year, when crime rates fell, U.S. Sen. George McGovern put the cost of drug crime at $4.4 billion. Sen. Charles Percy made it “$10 billion to $15 billion.” These figures were pure fantasy.

When the first Bush administration was devoting most of its energies to jacking up hysteria about drugs in 1989, Bush official Ben Renshaw at the Justice Department wanted the data showing a link between drugs and crime, a link everyone “knew” existed. He found the link had never been established in other than an anecdotal way. Baum reported that when statistician Renshaw tried to assemble the data to prove that drugs cause crime, he was blocked by other administration officials who wanted to “close the debate” on drugs and were satisfied with the widespread assumption. As Renshaw was prevented at every turn from doing his study, he concluded that “Data are risky. … What if they demonstrate a reality counter to the one the government wants to project?”

Non-drug crime, too, is often very different from what we “know” about it. Pollster Lou Harris once wrote that when members of the public are asked how common crime is, they always overestimate it. Journalism helps create that perception.

In his 1931 autobiography, reporter Lincoln Steffens wrote a chapter titled “I Make a Crime Wave” about an incident in the 1890s. New York Post reporter Steffens and New York Sun competitor Jacob Riis began reporting minor crime stories that previously passed unnoticed. Soon other reporters joined in. Police reports showed crime was actually declining, Steffens later wrote, “It was only the newspaper reports of crimes that had increased; there was a wave of publicity only.” But officials and the public were becoming aroused. The police commander told police board president Theodore Roosevelt what was actually happening, whereupon Roosevelt asked Steffens and Riis to knock it off, which they did, ending the crime wave.

Nothing has changed. I have seen several manufactured crime waves in Reno over the years, never substantiated by crime figures. And one of the insidious effects of these myths is that those who spread them start believing them. I have twice seen Reno television news anchors express disbelief on the air at the very stories they were reading off the teleprompter dealing with declining crime numbers in the city.

National network programs like 48 Hours spend most of their time on local crime stories with no national implications, projecting onto a national canvas a threat level that is misleading. There are ratings in scaring the hell out of people. Meanwhile, genuine national stories go uncovered.

Money is at stake. Not long after the federal government began a grant program for local senior citizen crime protections, New York City’s news outlets—aided by helpful law enforcement agencies—began reporting rampant anti-elderly robberies. Everyone “knew” seniors were at risk because they heard or read about it happening. Criminologist Jerome Miller later noted that “no objective evidence backed up the premise of this reporting.”

Creating new realities by lying to the public is big business. Public relations firms and experts and scientists with easy morals can always be counted on to say black is white for big money.

When scientist Rachel Carson reported on the dangers of DDT, the industry rented scientists to put out competing claims and were very successful at muddying the waters as journalists and commentators with little ability to distinguish science from public relations parroted those claims. Meanwhile, among real scientists, Carson’s work stands up well.

When high fructose corn syrup began getting a bad reputation from scientists for fueling obesity more than other sugars, particularly among women, the industry started paying scientists to crank out competing studies. There is now plenty of dubious “science” online alongside the real thing.

It’s astonishing how many people and institutions are willing to let people die for lies and money. One public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, with more than 60 offices around the world, went through tens of millions of tobacco industry dollars telling the public its products were safe and later accepted big fees from the Kuwaiti government to lie the United States into a war, including sending the daughter of the Kuwait ambassador to a highly publicized congressional hearing to pose as “Nurse Nayirah” and testify falsely that she witnessed Iraqi soldiers killing hundreds of babies at al-Addan hospital in Kuwait City. If there is something HK will not do for money, it has yet to emerge.

Meanwhile, reliable authorities, experts and scientists often have trouble getting a hearing.

Missing the story

One of the most influential governing myths of all had major legal consequences and was entirely missed by journalists. It came in the late 1990s when state attorneys general and the health lobby spread a story that the tobacco settlement required state governments to use the settlement payments for health care. There was and is no such requirement, but it was so widely believed that it gave the health lobby an advantage over other groups in competing for state budget dollars—and still does to this day.

No field is more afflicted by false positives than education, and there is no way to cover them all here. Suffice it to say that the amount of bad information about schools is a national and local scandal. Education’s role as a policy problem child is so pronounced that its troubles are something we all “know” to be true. Politicians and reporters benefit by characterizing education as deeply troubled and they often feed off each other, prompting the enactment of laws based on false information.

In the vice presidential debate in 2000, Republican Richard Cheney said, “Well, I think public education is a solution. Our desire is to find ways to reform our educational system, to return it to its former glory. I’m a product of public schools.” In fact, U.S. schools of the 1940s—when Cheney attended grade school—were far worse than they are today. There was no “former glory.”

U.S. service members were deliberately exposed to “safe” atomic weapons tests.

The debate question Cheney answered came from Bernard Shaw, who framed the question with a premise defining education as a problem. Shaw said there was “no magic bullet to solve the problems of public education, but what’s the next best solution?”

Journalism, which never misses the failings of education, rarely sees its progress, either. In the current American Journalism Review—a journal that polices media practices—Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi flunked journalism for its education coverage. Its hand-wringing made it miss a major story in the last couple of decades:

“Have the nation’s schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way? Some schools are having a difficult time educating children—particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently, or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill.

“But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive. First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders. … Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today. … All told, America’s long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning.”

Even pure science is not safe from agendas. In February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations/World Meteorological Organization group, released a report finding that there was a clear scientific consensus that climate change was real and was caused by humans.

The report was the fourth done by the IPCC on the subject, following 1990, 1995 and 2001 surveys. The fourth study was the most ambitious and detailed ever and was so conservative that it was criticized on the left for soft-pedaling the bad news. The 2007 study took seven years to research and compile. Six thousand studies were reviewed. The findings were peer reviewed in 130 nations. After its release, its findings were accepted by 56 percent of the public, according to a CNN survey. Then corporate money went to work. Last month, a Rasmussen survey showed belief in science on climate change has dropped to 34 percent. Among climate scientists, that figure is 97 percent, according to a CNN survey of more than a thousand climate scientists. The science undermined was done by cherry-picking available studies, emphasizing oddball issues, quoting selectively, publicizing “experts” with no expertise. Real science is described as junk science while the real junk “science” gets a pass.

Money versus facts

Policy myths don’t come from nowhere. There are often powerful forces fostering them. One of the reasons medical care for senior citizens—now called Medicare—was delayed for so long in the United States was that the medical lobby put out outlandish stories of what it would mean. President Kennedy on May 20, 1962:

“The mail pours in. And at least half of the mail which I receive in the White House … is wholly misinformed. Last week I got 1,500 letters on a revenue measure—1,494 opposed, and six for—and at least half of those letters were completely misinformed about the details of what they wrote. And why is that so? Because there are so many busy men in Washington who write—some organizations have six, seven and eight hundred people spreading mail across the country, asking doctors and others to write in and tell your Congressman you’re opposed to it. The mail pours into the White House, into the Congress and senators’ offices—congressmen and senators feel people are opposed to it. Then they read a Gallup Poll which says 75 percent of the people are in favor of it, and they say, ‘What has happened to my mail?’ ”

Policy myths are usually created either by those with money or for political reasons. In the 1950s, it was anti-communism. In the 21st century, it is often anti-environmentalism. And hostility to the environment overlaps with money, as when busy corporate polluters Charles and David Koch fund a massive complex of think tanks and advocacy groups to undercut scientific findings about climate change and protect Koch oil refining.

When Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway researched their book Merchants of Doubt, they found that some of the rent-a-scientists who once cranked out studies and provided court testimony for the tobacco companies are the same scientists who now aid the Kochs and other industry figures in creating doubt about climate change.

It doesn’t take a lot to get a false story out there and embedded in the minds of the public. “People are impressionable,” Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism Todd Gitlin told us. “The less they know about an area, the more vulnerable they are to the crusading passions of the moment. Synapses, once formed, tend to harden.”

University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarzhas did a study that found when people are given false information to read, and it is clearly identified as false, they tend within minutes afterward to misremember nearly a third of it as true—40 percent within three days. There is now a massive industry dedicated to misleading the public. It’s child’s play when billionaires open their wallets and principle is not an issue.

They are aided by journalists who often create a false balance. Reporters—and pop culture czars like Oprah Winfrey—who would never dream of giving hearings to both sides of bank robbery or cancer, happily put climate scientists up against TV weathercasters or pit physicians against Jim Carrey in order to “balance” a story about something that is not actually a subject of scientific dispute. The falsehood industry loves this willingness by reporters.

In some ways mendacious manipulation of information is becoming so widespread and deeply rooted in our culture that we are starting to lose sight of what facts are. After U.S. Rep. Allen West of Florida said falsely that “there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party [in Congress] that are members of the Communist Party,” Chicago journalist Rex Huppke sat down and wrote an obituary for facts:

“Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion. Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC.”

Some journalism entities are trying to compete with the bad information injected into the public bloodstream like poison. The Washington Post has a “five myths” feature—five myths about the Keystone XL pipeline, five myths about zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, five myths about the health-care law, five myths about Syria, five myths about student loans, five myths about voter fraud.

But tinkering with the effects of intentional, unscrupulous and well funded disinformation is not enough. A whole system of communication is failing and no one has a realistic way of coping.

Next month, Dennis Myers will have a report on the damage done over the past quarter century to a single field—education—by policy myths.

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.