Truth, and the America we live in today

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WRITE IT off to my advanced age and general crankiness after more than four decades as a journalist, but I grow increasingly weary of real news people being painted with the same brush as the celebrity-obsessed, navel-gazing, bobbing-talking-head crowd that dominates the Washington-New York corridor and the cable television landscape.

It's a round-robin exercise. Intellectually lazy people park in front of their television sets, because it's so much easier than reading and researching and absorbing facts that do not always line up neatly with one's world view. Meanwhile, cable television "news" channels pound partisan drums, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. Real news is scarce as snowballs in Miami - it's all opinion, all manipulated content, all the time.

That barrage of invective divides Americans into angry camps. That's the business plan. Sort and filter the audience by tribal political preference, hit all their hot buttons, raise their blood pressure to keep them watching and fuming, then cash in with advertisers who want to reach those viewers.

FOR THOSE of us trying to practice real journalism - I define that as fact-based reporting - the cable era (and throw talk radio into the mix) has been a growing menace.

Audiences have been thoroughly indoctrinated, both left and right. If well reported facts emerge and throw into question the conclusions being sold by left or right cable or talk radio hosts, audiences increasingly reject not only the questions, but the facts themselves.

And the reporters.

This would be bad enough without the nation's capital journalists making it worse by their own actions.

THE RECENT annual dinner of the White House Correspondents Association is a classic case in point. The black-tie affair is about as far removed from the tough slog of real journalism as a show horse is from a plow horse. This is a self-congratulatory crowd whose sensibilities generally extend no farther than the eastern Amtrak corridor.

Historically, the correspondents' dinner is a relatively harmless affair where politicians and pundits come together to tweak each others' noses. Presidents routinely have stopped by to highlight the evening and make nice with jokes, often of the self-deprecating kind. In the era of Trump, though, this particular occupant of the White House has no interest in breaking bread with his tormentors. And, one assumes, the feeling is mutual.

So a comic by the name of Michelle Wolf headlined the recent dinner and raised a ruckus because she was excruciatingly mean to Team Trump. To a significant degree, that's what comics sometimes do. They push the edge. If you don't want to hear that, don't hand them a microphone. Spare us dinner organizers' phony shock because a comic was over the top.

But also, spare us the crocodile tears from the Trump camp. Remember, while Wolf was running her mouth in Washington, Trump was running his mouth in Michigan. His personal insult machine is more than a match for anybody else's - and if one's shameful, so's the other. It's peculiarly silly when this White House cries foul because somebody mouthed an insult. Good lord - check his Twitter feed.

HERE'S WHAT bothers me. The journalism I love and try to practice is serious stuff. It's not about celebrity or entertainment. It's not about making jokes. It's not about pushing a particular narrative, by twisting truth or withholding facts that might contradict partisan preference. It's a relentless search for facts, and reporting the truth as near as possible to the people who need it in order to participate in the Founders' experiment in self-governance.

Yes, I know, even if we try as hard as we can and bring our education and experience to bear, news reporters still make mistakes. But for serious journalists they are honest mistakes, ones we are obligated to acknowledge and correct as best we can. It's imperfect, because we are imperfect, but over these four decades I've seen colleagues here and elsewhere give up family time, nights, weekends, holidays and more lucrative career opportunities out of sheer commitment to finding and telling the truth. To hear these people and that commitment besmirched with a snarky "fake news" sours my gut.

I'm angry at those celebrities posing as journalists on television and talk radio, when they're really propagandists for a particular political universe. I'm angry at the Washington-New York correspondents for playing patsy to political excess. And I'm angry with the American people for allowing themselves to be so easily manipulated by the propaganda machines, and for growing increasingly hostile to fact-based reporting.

Truth cannot be defined as telling one what one wants to hear. I always believed that, and thought news consumers did, too. Now, I'm not nearly so sanguine. Could be, this is now the America we live in.

William Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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