On August 5, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television and told the following story: Three days earlier, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked US warships patrolling in international waters. US crewmembers repelled the attacks. Two days later, the North Vietnamese attacked again. Claiming the attacks were deliberate and unprovoked, the president now ordered a muscular response: Sixty-four planes bombed four North Vietnamese boat bases, destroying most of the vessels stationed there.
Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on August 7, giving Johnson a free hand to defend any member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Thus began the American military escalation that became the Vietnam war. The only problem was that the “facts” Johnson presented to Congress and the public were false.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the White House the legal cover to wage a war that ultimately claimed 58,000 Americans and failed to achieve its stated objective—keeping communism out of South Vietnam. And it was all predicated on bad intelligence, lies, and misrepresentation.
935 Lies, the new book about government dissembling and media enabling from veteran investigative journalist Charles Lewis, starts with the Gulf of Tonkin and wends its way through one shameful episode after another, culminating with the arguments justifying the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. “My career in journalism has coincided with a tragic period in American history—one in which in which falsehood has increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, and in which the bedrock values of honesty, transparency, accountability, and integrity we once took granted have been steadily eroded,” writes Lewis, who is a contributing editor to CJR.
The book’s title comes from a study published by the Center for Public Integrity, the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Lewis founded in 1989. Released in 2008, “Iraq: The War Card” found that President George W. Bush and his senior officials made 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq during the lead-up and immediate aftermath of the US invasion. What Lewis calls a “carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths” led America to war under false pretenses—reminiscent of the events preceding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Though the book is about government and private-sector efforts over the last five decades to keep truth beyond the public’s reach, Lewis spends considerable time targeting his colleagues in the commercial press and their failure to aggressively, and consistently, hold society’s power brokers to account. He acknowledges the many exceptions—the publication of The Pentagon Papers by The New York Times in the face of withering political pressure, for instance, and The Washington Post’s pursuit of the Watergate break-in and other Nixon administration misdeeds—but mostly Lewis is deeply critical of American journalism.
He lays much of the blame on the shift to public ownership of newspapers that began in the 1960s, and the consolidation of broadcast news under large corporate umbrellas that began with deregulation by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. These changes made the media more beholden to a bottom-line, offend-no-one corporate mentality, and to the short-term profit demands of shareholders. (Oddly, he makes almost no mention of how media companies fumbled their adaptation to the internet, inadvertently conditioning the public to expect its news for free. The subsequent collapse of the ad-based business model made expensive investigative reporting difficult to sustain.)
Among the incidents Lewis uses to make his case was the fallout from 1994’s “Smoke Screen,” a segment by the ABC News primetime program Day One that claimed tobacco companies had manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to increase addiction. The story included interviews with a whistleblower code-named Deep Cough, a former employee of R.J. Reynolds. The piece won a George Polk Award.
A month after the broadcast, Philip Morris filed a $10-billion libel suit against ABC and the show’s producers. ABC publicly stood by its story, but behind the scenes corporate knees were quivering. The network had another show in the works called “Tobacco Under Fire.” It was an investigation into Philip Morris’ efforts to convince the government to help open foreign markets to American cigarettes. By early March 1994, the show’s rough-cut had been screened and approved by its producers, network news president Roone Arledge, and ABC’s lawyers, with an anticipated air date in early April.
Once the libel suit was filed, “Tobacco Under Fire” was put on hold, and ABC eventually spiked it as Philip Morris aggressively pursued the suit. The network was negotiating an historic $19-billion merger with Disney and needed this bit of unpleasantness to go away. In August 1995, a few weeks after the merger was announced, ABC settled the libel suit. Diane Sawyer read a formal apology to Philip Morris during halftime of Monday Night Football.