OPED: Cry of ‘fake news’ is more than just wrong, it’s nationally destructive
FAKE, (feyk) n: a spurious report or story.
Keep it up, America, and you’ll be going the way of the Roman Empire. Keep on gleefully dismissing valid, pointed stories written by skilled journalists as “fake news.” That irresponsible action is going bite your backside in a way you cannot even imagine now.
Reporters know it. Elected officials know it. Writers of the U.S. Constitution knew it — that’s how “freedom of the press” landed in the First Amendment.
And now, Time Magazine has recognized this delicate relationship in naming courageous journalists, including five who worked for a Sentinel sister paper called the Capital Gazette, as among “The Guardians and the War on Truth.” They were fatally shot June 28, when a gunman opened fire in the Maryland newsroom. They were among a group of assassinated or jailed reporters named by Time as 2018 Person of the Year.
Time put into words the anger that journalists worldwide have ignored or suppressed the last few years because they strive to be impartial — and because journalists aren’t used to defending themselves. We’re the ones in the back of the room taking notes at the council meeting. The magazine went further — it disputed President Donald Trump’s definition of “fake news,” which simply is his view of reports that aren’t favorable to him. And him calling the press “the enemy of the people”? That’s just kook talk.
Time warned that Trump’s continued use of the phrase already has found despots worldwide embracing his bold strategy of dismissing demonstrably true reports as the machinations of the opposition. Truth does matter when it comes to news reporting.
“That world is led, in some ways, by a U.S. President whose … attacks on the press has set a troubling tone,” Time wrote.
Troubling doesn’t cover it. Potentially destructive is closer.
Writers of the Constitution recognized even in 1787 that the press, often called the Fourth Estate, is an integral part of how democracy works. Can you name a country run by a despot where the press is free? Given the choice between having free newspapers or a government, American statesman Thomas Jefferson said he’d do without government.
It’s the job of the journalist to get people thinking and talking about issues of the day, engaged in the community, stepping forward to take action. It’s the job to write the truth. Without independent journalism, this country eventually can kiss democracy goodbye. Consider countries around the world where the press is suppressed by government. How about China? Care to move there? Reporters without Borders ranks China in the top 10 most repressive states. Or Venezuela? Independent journalists there are mostly dead journalists.
It’s great fun to join in the cry of “fake news” and get your daily dose from some left- or right-wing internet site, but folks who do that are participating in the destruction of this country’s democracy. People should get their information from a press that strives to write with impartiality, not one that starts with a stated point of view or the goal of getting the most clicks. Mainstream newspapers are among the few current producers of news who meet that goal. Social media, which produces no news, is at the other end of the scale.
In this columnist’s 38 years with the Sentinel, only a couple instances of actual fabrication come to mind – where a reporter made something up and wrote it as “fact.” That, folks, is fake news. It is not fake news when a story is critical of the politician you happen to like best at that moment. Try a week in Saudi Arabia if you want to watch real fake news in action. Travel Tip No. 1: Best not link the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey to the Saudi crown prince while you’re there. Saudi Arabia is a little short on that concept of freedom of speech, and the kingdom made it known to Khashoggi, according to Turkish authorities.
Time wisely linked these two injustices: the fight for respect for journalists and the fight for respect for the truth. It serves to remind reporters and editors of the two critical parts of their job: First, build trust with the reader by accurate reporting. Second, cover what’s going on where you’re planted, sometimes called “community journalism.”
That message resonates with reporters and editors who strive every day to provide truth to their community.
“This recognition reminds us of just how important community journalism is to our profession,” Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, wrote in a staff memo. “Our community news organizations hold local government leaders accountable and provide the news and information that matters to those who live and work in the community.”
And for those ceaselessly screaming “fake news,” the Time award is a siren to say that a community with a free press and a reliable news sources is one of the critical threads that binds people together and makes this tricky thing called democracy a success.