Truth can survive 'fake news'; it cannot survive disinterest

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THOSE of us in the field of journalism value independence above all, so it takes a lot to get reporters and editors from across the spectrum to lock arms and stand together.

But that's what is happening today at news organizations across America, in response to what has been billed as a "call to action" started at the Boston Globe. Follow along as I quote from a note penned by Marjorie Pritchard, who works for the Globe's editorial page.

"The slander of 'fake news' has become Donald Trump's most potent tool of abuse and incitement against the First Amendment, labeling journalists 'enemy of the American people' and 'dangerous and sick.' This dirty war on the free press must end. The Boston Globe is reaching out to editorial boards across the country to propose a coordinated response ... Publications, whatever their politics, could make a powerful statement by standing together in the common defense of their profession and the vital role it plays in government for and by the people. The impact of Trump's assault on journalism looks different in Boise than it does in Boston. Our words will differ. But at least we can agree that such attacks are alarming. A free and independent press is one of the most sacred principles enshrined in the Constitution."

SO TODAY, we have committed this page to join with our brothers and sisters in Boston and elsewhere in defense of the Founders' idea that a free and independent press is vital to protecting and preserving liberty.

I'm going to veer off-message a bit, because more than four decades in the business convinces me most Americans are not easily aroused to defend nosy journalists. They really don't like us much, and I get that. I grew up with it.

When I was in high school and played basketball the editor of a neighboring town's weekly paper wrote something that a lot of folks thought was disrespectful toward our team and players. There wasn't a lynching but the air was filled with loud angry voices, none of which could be heard defending the editor's free-press rights.

While I was in journalism school at Southern Illinois University and then in my first reporting job at the Charleston (Illinois) Times Courier, the national media was breaking story after story about Watergate and its cover-up, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It was a contentious time, and in the Midwestern rural area where I grew up and returned often for visits Nixon still had plenty of supporters, who focused their ire on the press.

My father, a farmer, told of joining others in a conversation where the topic of the day was Watergate and the press. A man turned to him and said, "They ought to stand all these damned reporters up against a wall and shoot them, don't you think so, Ray?"

Dad said he responded, "Well, I might have agreed until my boy became one of them." I always suspected Dad had to think awhile about his answer.

AS ONE who has been through the battles before, I'd urge my colleagues to take this assault in stride as well. I have faith in the Constitution. When Trump is long gone, I'll bet the First Amendment will still be around.

This is not the right business for people who need to be liked. People with thin skin would be wise to choose another line of work. Get used to being unloved.

The reason journalists make an easy target is not hard to understand. When you get right down to it, people absolutely despise being confronted with uncomfortable or inconvenient facts. And finding such things is our mission in life.

People the world over pick sides. America today is astonishingly polarized - but it's been polarized before; after all, we did fight a Civil War.

When one has chosen the red or blue team, reporting that challenges that orthodoxy becomes fighting words. Maybe, deep down, people understand there usually are three sides to every story - your side, my side ... and the truth - but folks still hate to admit it.

We in the press wave the banner all the time about "the people's right to know." But, sometimes, I'm fairly convinced people do not prefer truth. What they really want is a marching band and a parade supporting their viewpoint and fiercely object to anything else.

WE IN the press would do well to understand that dynamic and go on about our business anyway, remembering this: The truth may not be popular, but in the end, truth usually wins.

Having said that, there are elements this time around that feel different.

When the man in the White House, on a daily basis, calls truth a lie and lies the truth, we have entered unprecedented territory. When reporters are called "enemies of the people" - a phrase casually thrown about during Trump rallies but historically linked with the show trials of Josef Stalin - while audiences cheer, that is chilling. When deeply-reported journalism is called "fake news" and studies show two-thirds of respondents rely significantly on social media for their news, alarm bells should go off.

A nation that can't - or won't - reliably agree on fundamental facts has set out on the road to authoritarianism, and maybe oblivion. It certainly would be at-risk of devolving into a very different place than the Founders envisioned.

THERE are many causes for this, but I think two changes largely fueled the process. The explosion of cable television channels moved the needle toward carving audiences into ideological niches as a commercial strategy. The result, today, is that liberals and conservatives can choose never to hear or see anything contrary to their viewpoint. That is not news; it is not truth; it is political propaganda. Next came the information flood that is the internet, and the smartphone in everyone's hand. Truth quickly became a casualty, in a torrent of distortion. Today, we're losing the ability to discern what is fact and what is fiction.

That's catnip for the politically motivated partisan classes. It allows them to distort and dissemble to their heart's content. Trump is better at it than anybody else, feeding the narrative that supporters should believe him because, well, they want to, and anybody reporting contrary facts is the "enemy of the people."

The climate of hostility that creates is dangerous. Not that I feel - remembering back to my rural roots - the state will start rounding us up and standing us against a wall somewhere to be shot, though that's happened elsewhere when despots took control and a first step always is to silence independent voices. Rather, I worry about how freedom survives if the day comes when people no longer believe in independent fact-finding, or the reporting profession simply goes away for lack of public interest in supporting it.

ALL THIS takes place today against the backdrop of rapidly changing dynamics in the news industry. It's no secret that revenue models that have supported independent journalism are threatened, as advertisers try to manage a fragmented information environment and audiences are absorbed in the firehose of digital content. It can be tough for news to compete for attention with digital friends. It's human nature to pick ice cream over spinach.

Sensing blood in the water, the political war against journalism is not limited to Trump or Washington. More than ever, state and local governments are pushing back against press efforts to promote transparency, to access records and to conduct unfiltered ask-and-answer interviews with decision-makers.

Here's the nut of it all. Independent reporting and fact-finding without government control and spin will survive only if the American people want it.

Trump is loud and crass but he can't kill us, unless the people want us dead.

We journalists do not need your love. We do need your support.

The alternative? Call this "fake news" if you want, but I think if independent journalism some day disappears, we, the people, can count on getting the government we will deserve.

William Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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