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America’s lying problem

Statue of Themis
Image from Wikimedia Commons

We’re in the midst of a lying epidemic, according to James B. Stewart, author of Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.

Telling the stories of Martha Stewart, Bernie Madoff, Barry Bonds, and “Scooter” Libby, Mr. Stewart explores how and why people at the top of their field deliberately toss trustworthiness out the window.

“Obviously they all thought they had done something wrong, they couldn’t admit it, they were going to hide it, and it was easier to lie and cover it up,” Stewart said in an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Part of the problem is that people can’t bring themselves to admit that they’ve done something wrong. And it seems this sort of lying isn’t exclusive to billionaire entrepreneurs and athletes. Stewart noted in the interview, “[E]very single prosecutor told me that they felt it was an epidemic, that it was out of control. One of them said, ‘Every day I come into work expecting to be lied to….’”

What’s the solution?

“You have to have people being held accountable for breaking the law, and then you have to have encouragement for people who do the right thing,” Stewart said.

But also, telling these cautionary tales, illustrating how tangled up people get in their own webs, can arm us with good sense to admit to our mistakes and honestly face the consequences.

The stories of Madoff, Stewart, Bonds, and Libby all show that lying – to protect your reputation, make money, or preserve your positive self-image – comes out eventually, destroying whatever it is you wanted to save. Lying also tends to destroy the lives of the people around the liar. In the interview, Mr. Stewart recalled that Martha Stewart’s lying shattered the life of the young stock broker’s assistant who got caught up in her scheme.

Click here to listen to the interview.

Related: See CC! President Michael Josephson’s commentary “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.