Author : Peter Vanderwicken is editor of Vanderwicken’s Financial Digest, a newsletter for financial executives, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Previously, he was a journalist at Time, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal and the head of corporate communication at J.P. Morgan & Company. A version of this article appeared in the May-June 1995 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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The news media and the government are entwined in a vicious circle of mutual manipulation, mythmaking, and self-interest. Journalists need crises to dramatize news, and government officials need to appear to be responding to crises. Too often, the crises are not really crises but joint fabrications. The two institutions have become so ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that the news media are unable to tell the public what is true and the government is unable to govern effectively. That is the thesis advanced by Paul H. Weaver, a former political scientist (at Harvard University), journalist (at Fortune magazine), and corporate communications executive (at Ford Motor Company), in his provocative analysis entitled News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Works published by the Free Press in 1994.

The news media and the government have created a charade that serves their own interests but misleads the public. Officials oblige the media’s need for drama by fabricating crises and stage-managing their responses, thereby enhancing their own prestige and power. Journalists dutifully report those fabrications. Both parties know the articles are self-aggrandizing manipulations and fail to inform the public about the more complex but boring issues of government policy and activity.

What has emerged, Weaver argues, is a culture of lying. “The culture of lying,” is the discourse and behavior of officials seeking to enlist the powers of journalism in support of their goals, and of journalists seeking to co-opt public and private officials into their efforts to find and cover stories of crisis and emergency response. It is the medium through which Americans conduct most of their  public business (and a lot of their  private business) these days. The result, is a distortion of the constitutional role of government into an institution that must continually resolve or appear to resolve crises; it functions in “a new and powerful permanent emergency mode of operation.”

The press corrupts itself, the public policy process, and the public’s perceptions,  when it seeks out and propagates dueling cover stories, with their drama, conflict, and quotable advocates, but fails to discover or report the underlying realities. The press prints the news but not the truth. It reports in detail the competing propaganda of the conflicting interests but largely neglects the substance of the issue in conflict.

The media’s practice of focusing on the manipulators and their machinations rather than on substantive issues is perhaps unavoidable because it reflects several aspects of American culture. Personalities are more compelling than institutions, facts are often uncertain, attention spans (and television sound bites) are brief, and simplification—often oversimplification—is the norm. But the media’s focus on façades has several consequences.

One is that news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality. Adverse leaks or innuendos about a government official often lead to his or her loss of influence, resignation, or dismissal. The willingness of the press to report innuendos and rumors as news changes reality. The subjects of such reports, which are usually fabrications created by opponents, must be prepared to defend themselves instantly. The mere appearance of a disparaging report in the press changes perceptions and, unless effectively rebutted, will change reality and the truth. That is why government officials and politicians—and, increasingly, companies and other institutions—pay as much attention to communications as to policy.

One consequence of the prevalence of propaganda in the press is that the public’s confidence in all institutions gradually erodes. As people begin to realize that they are being misled, manipulated, and lied to, they resent it. The decline in confidence reflects a widening feeling that the news media are contentious, unfair, inaccurate, and under the thumb of powerful institutions.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of journalists’ focus on crises and conflicts is that both they and the public become blind to systemic issues. The press’s inability to report events or trends that are not crises is not limited to public affairs and domestic news.

The real failing of the press, is that it has become a victim of the man-bites-dog syndrome. “What’s actually going on in the real world is the ordinary business of ordinary institutions,. “What officials and reporters converge on, therefore, are travesties, not real events. The news stops representing the real world and begins to falsify it. The barter transaction between newsmaker and journalist degenerates into an exercise in deceit, manipulation, and exploitation.”

Wary of making decisions based on opinion or belief, the U.S. public has come to rely on facts, data, surveys, and presumably scientific studies. People are increasingly reluctant to believe any assertion that is not supported by statistical research.

The media’s desire for drama encourages the distortion and corruption of public decision making. “The media are willing victims of bad information, and increasingly they are producers of it. They take information from self-interested parties and add to it another layer of self-interest—the desire to sell information.”

Weaver argues that the press should cover crises and disasters less and political, social, and economic events more: less politics, more substance; less on personalities, more on institutions. When the president holds a press conference, for example, the press should cover all of its substance in a single article headed “Presidential Press Conference.”

 The rapid advance of information age technology—hundreds of cable television channels, the growth of specialized media, the spread of computer information resources—is certain to give citizens access to far more diverse sources of information and is likely to force the media to reinvent the ways in which they present news and other information.

A press driven by drama and crises creates a government driven by response to crises. Such an “emergency government can’t govern,” Not only does public support for emergency policies evaporate the minute they’re in place and the crisis passes, but officials acting in the emergency mode can’t make meaningful 

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