Dear Editor, I am forced by the “Fake News Awards” (1/17/18) to return to the unique and important relationship between media and government in the United States. Ours is the only country that provides constitutional protection for journalists. It’s easy to assume that everyplace has a “first amendment”. In fact, almost no place does. This is why it is so important that our elected leaders respect independent, fact-based journalism. The world is watching.
The current administration labels as “fake news” not that which is factually false, but that which goes against its agenda or its self-image. The influence of this is reaching beyond our borders. When the leader of the world’s only superpower disrespects and threatens journalistic protections, other heads of state crack down on legitimate news reporting. Words have consequences. Authoritarians and dictators worldwide are increasingly using this very term against journalists who do not enjoy the protections of the U.S. constitution. Consequences are sometimes fatal. The leaders of Myanmar, Singapore, Syria, and the Philippines are examples of abusive despots who are now accusing fact-based journalism of being “fake news”.
There is no legal definition of “news”. There never has been. So how did we get here? How did the profession of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite become so threatened and denigrated? Within my adult lifetime, U.S. media were governed by what the FCC called the fairness doctrine. It required that equal time be given to opposing viewpoints. Abolishing the fairness doctrine in the 1980’s paved the way for today’s agenda- and opinion-driven “news-ish” programming. Entire networks are now devoted to promoting what they want you and me to believe, while giving it the appearance of news. The recent Congressional repeal of net neutrality laws may well worsen this disturbing trend.
Why all the fuss? Who cares if those in high places (such as the White House) equate opinion and fact? We all should, because provable, verified facts are essential to forming valid opinion, not the reverse. Facts can be proved with evidence. A fact is a reality or event that can be experienced and observed with one or more of the senses. Everything else is opinion. When public consensus on truth, falsehood, and propaganda become blurred, democracy cannot thrive. Disinformation and discrediting of journalism are the standard weapons of tyrants. Let us remember that the current president has referred to news reporters as “slime”, “scum”, and “the enemy of the people”. Frightfully, his default response to the topic of disappeared or murdered journalists around the world is jokey dismissal.
I am not a journalist. But my understanding of world events and my place in them rely on independent, fact-based journalism, not somebody else’s idea of what I should believe. So are yours. A free press is only safe when it is protected by the citizens.