The press — the people’s best friend

Thomas Jefferson was a severe critic of the newspapers of his time. Still he said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I agree. Our free press is not “the enemy of the people,” as President Trump likes to say. A free press is the people’s best friend.

However, many Americans disagree with Jefferson and agree with Trump. According to an August 2018 IPSOS poll, 43 percent of Republicans — compared to 21 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Democrats — believe that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior”. Reporters often die trying to bring us the truth. Reporters without Borders found that around the world in 2018, 80 journalists were killed, 60 were held hostage and 348 were detained. In June, 2018, five reporters wee killed at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. Our military fight for and sometimes give up their lives to protect all of our liberties, including freedom of the press.

Jefferson would have considered the prospect of government control of the news as absolutely terrifying. The very last thing in the world he or any of the Founding Fathers would have wanted is an authoritarian government deciding what news is and is not fit to print and broadcast. For all its shortcomings and faults, and however many times I may have disagreed with some of its coverage, I agree with the spirit of Jefferson and argue that the mainstream news media is the best available source of news among those available today. Calling all the news they report fake news and characterizing the entire industry as the “enemy of the people” is false and a threat to our constitutional rights. It can incite people to acts of violence against reporters, it intimidates members of the press and thereby endangers our First Amendment right to a free press.

What sets the “the mainstream media” (including newspapers, TV channels, and internet news sites) apart from genuinely “fake news?” There are about bout 32,000 reporters working for the 1,390 newspapers in the United States; 1,700 working for TV channels and an unknown number for internet news sites. This is how representatives of these reporters describe how they go about their work.

• They rely on evidence and statistics.

• They employ staff whose only job is to check the facts that appear in their news reporting.

• Though they depend on the best available facts, they sometimes make mistakes.

• They issue corrections or make retractions when they are made aware of their mistakes.

• They try to separate news reporting from editorial comment.

• They are challenged by competitors to make their news reporting accurate.

• They employ professionally trained staff: 90 percent of reporters involved in the mainstream media have college degrees; 50 percent have majors in journalism or communications.

These principles are what differentiates a responsible free press from propaganda, the conspiratorial media and real “fake news.”

Assertions that all reporters working for mainstream sources of news provide “fake news” are simply not backed up by supporting evidence. Such assertions themselves can be accurately called “fake news.” They are examples of deliberate misinformation spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. The only information that is ever provided to support these assertions are isolated anecdotes falsely generalized to the entire universe of news outlets and reporters. Reporting the bad behavior of public figures is not bad reporting. The very opposite is true: failure to report bad things public officials do is bad reporting.

It may be fun to demolish stories you don’t like to read or hear by simply dismissing them as “fake news.” Doing so is so convenient, however intellectually lazy. It exempts one from the onerous task of doing some reading and research in a wide variety of places to dig out the truth. For example, labeling personally unpalatable stories about Donald Trump as “fake news” makes it effortless to criticize mainstream news reports about his unending negative behavior as biased negative coverage of Donald Trump. And since Trump does so much that is objectionable and the mainstream media covers everything the President does, critics of the media continuously whine that reporters are always picking on poor Donald Trump.

It’s bad enough that Trump supporters reflexively reject reporting on Trump’s outrageous actions as false news. They are also ready to swallow obviously ridiculous stories from the sources they trust even when they are preposterous. So news outlets supporting Donald Trump did nothing to rebut stories like: the pope endorsed Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and was involved in an alleged child sex ring involving the Washington, D.C., restaurant Comet Ping Pong (Pizzagate); Barack Obama founded ISIS, Democratic staffer Seth Richards was involved in the DNC hacking and was murdered to cover up that fact, ISIS leaders called on American Muslims to support Hillary Clinton, etc.

Retired Admiral Bill McRaven, a Navy SEAL, oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. McRaven has repeatedly warned us of a clear and present danger: “When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands. There is nothing more important to a democracy than an active and engaged press. Is it perfect? Far from it. Does the media make mistakes? Far too often. But flaws and all, I believe the free press is our country’s most important institution. President Trump’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.

Tim Mannello is a retired hospital executive and business consultant residing in Williamsport.