Wednesday, Nov. 9, has been marked on my calendar for six months. When I wake up Wednesday morning the air will be cleaner, the sun will be brighter, the streets will be free of trash and potholes, and television advertising will once again be about insurance, cars, beer and lawyers wanting to get us a boatload of money if we have been injured in an automobile accident.
Why this anticipated euphoria? For six months, political lies have pushed the Liar Meter well past the 100% range to the 150% range. Wednesday morning should mean that the “liar, liar, pants on fire” meter will drop faster than the stock market in a recession.
The Liar Meter has exceeded its capacity to keep up with the number of lies being told by politicians in television ads. There are so many lies being told on television, I am tempted to believe television has been inhabited by a legion of demons, and I don’t even believe in literal demons.
“I am tempted to believe television has been inhabited by a legion of demons, and I don’t even believe in literal demons.”
Under so much stress, the Liar Meter will relax and return to normal levels. The usual fibs and misinformation of pharmacy companies, lawyers, insurance companies (every company has the guaranteed lowest rate if you have never filed a claim), corporations, stockbrokers, mattress salesmen, the My Pillow guy, will keep the Liar Meter active, but in the low 20% range.
Imagine the production of a Liar, Liar Pants on Fire Index. The Liar Index will have two functions: one will be to factor together the number of false claims, pieces of misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright lies into a cohesive indicator, and the other will be to standardize those components to eliminate the wide variance that currently exists with the reporting of lies.
The Liar Index has an analogous relationship to the Dow Jones Industrial Average in that it measures the ups and downs of the amount of lying done on a daily basis by politicians. It is a speedometer recording the danger of a runaway train capable of crashing into the house of democracy. The higher the number, the faster we’re moving toward the occurrence of the loss of democracy.
Some of the categories monitored for lies include immigrants, Social Security, Medicare, crime, violence, race, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, political campaigns, elections, conspiracy theories, inflation, antisemitism, hate groups, the economy, science, history and climate change.
“The lies told in political advertising use one primary affect: Fear.”
Why should I care about the lies told on television? The lies told in political advertising use one primary affect: Fear.
According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania: “Messages that induce fear dampen our disposition to scrutinize them for gaps in logic. When the message is fear arousing, personal involvement and interest in it minimize systematic evaluation.” She adds, “When fear is aroused, attention narrows, 34 simple autonomic behaviors are facilitated, complex, effort-filled ones inhibited, and creative thought dampened.”
People are susceptible to lies told on television. Even though television has been around for more than 70 years, the public remains mostly illiterate about the negative and hurtful aspects of television viewing. Dubbed the “plug-in drug” by child psychologists, television has potentially damaging influence on children.
“Studies in visual media have shown that people tend to believe what they hear and see on television.”
Studies in visual media have shown that people tend to believe what they hear and see on television. Television has been granted godlike status in our minds even though people complain about it.
Television viewers are not trained to separate the various kinds of communication they receive every hour. News, advertisements, entertainment, reality mix together seamlessly.
This phenomenon was well explained by former NBC president Robert Mulholland during the 1988 presidential campaign: “I think during the campaign the average viewer starts to get a little confused. I’m expecting any day now to see Willie Horton endorse a line of jeans. … Some of the ads start to look like news stories, they’re the same length, seconds. … Television is not just separated in the minds of the viewer between this is news, this is commercial, and this is entertainment. Sometimes it all gets fuzzed up because it all comes into the home through the same little piece of glass.”
Television provides the perfect foil for one of the most misleading of truth claims: the single example. Debaters are trained to dismantle any argument that relies on a single example that an opponent attempts to universalize. Television is a medium that maximizes the ability to turn a single instance into a national crisis.
Viewers see a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, and political consultants cut ads that create the sense that this shooting now takes place everywhere in the United States. Or an illegal immigrant rapes and murders a young girl, and claims are soon being made that all illegal immigrants are rapists and murders.
The fact: The United States does have a problem with undocumented immigrants entering the country illegally. And it is clear that television and social media make it easier for politicians to define our fears for us. They take these legitimate concerns, as political theorist Corey Robin puts it, and transform them “into imminent threats.” As John Fea points out, “The chance of being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is one in 10.9 million. Per year. One is more likely to die from walking across a railroad track or having one’s clothes spontaneously catch fire.”
“Fear carries a more powerful punch than facts in the minds of television viewers.”
Put claims about raping, killing and violence on television in the mouth of a president and it becomes an accepted truth. People will be frightened, and Neighborhood Watch groups will be on the lookout for illegal immigrants roaming their streets with murderous intent. No one will bother to look up the facts. Fear carries a more powerful punch than facts in the minds of television viewers. On television, perception trumps reality.
Political advertising is a “field ripe unto harvesting” for unscrupulous political consultants willing to tell the worst lies to have the most emotional effect on viewers. In other realms, advertisers have legal restrictions designed to limit misinformation, false claims and outright lies. These advertisers are less likely to be outright liars because we have truth-in-advertising laws.
When the Federal Trade Commission finds a case of fraud perpetrated on consumers, the agency files actions in federal district court for immediate and permanent orders to stop scams; prevent fraudsters from perpetrating scams in the future; freeze their assets; and get compensation for victims. When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence. The FTC enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears — in newspapers and magazines, online, in the mail, or on billboards or buses. The FTC looks especially closely at advertising claims that can affect consumers’ health or their pocketbooks — claims about food, over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplements, alcohol and tobacco and on conduct related to high-tech products and the internet.
Now, here’s an idea arriving really late to the party. Why don’t we have truth-in-political-advertising laws? When voters see or hear a political advertisement, there should be a federal law that decrees that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and backed by facts.
The Federal Truth in Political Advertising Commission would look especially closely at advertising that defames an opponent’s reputation. It would monitor political advertising that distorted the truth and lies to voters about claims that affect the health and pocketbooks of voters — claims about Social Security, Medicare, welfare, prescription drugs, facts about immigration, abortion, race, transportation, exaggerated claims about illegal immigrants murdering and raping children, and false claims about the conduct of other politicians.
Of course, such a law never would pass Congress.
Come Wednesday, I will be singing the old jingle from Alka Selzer, “Oh what a relief it is.” I will revert to yelling at the television that someone should put those “blue bears” pushing toilet tissue in a zoo, that the gecko be exiled, that Flo of Progressive Insurance fame will get a gig on a soap opera, and the AT&T woman will have a role in “Yellowstone,” and the number of injury lawyers be limited to three or four per week on television.
At least the Liar Meter will get a break until the next election cycle. Amen!
Rodney W. Kennedy is a pastor in New York state and serves as a preaching instructor at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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