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Meanwhile in Oz: Claim should only point to legitimate bias
Matt Johnson, Publisher - photo by Matt Johnson

President Donald Trump’s repeated statement that the “fake news media” is an “enemy of the American people” casts a negative broad brush over the entire news media. Trump has identified a key dilemma of our times. It’s nearly impossible for the citizenry to identify true journalism from political spin and opinion.

The president benefits from identifying this problem; it resonates with people. While free speech and journalism are separate things, many news entities spread opinion and misleading information under the guise of journalism. This has occurred sadly because media companies allowed it.

Prior to the advent of the internet, it had been standard procedure for the news media, especially newspapers, to require writers of letter to the editor to include their name and municipality with their letter. The origin of opinion was checked. Many newspapers and other media outlets dropped this requirement for internet comments when they started websites. Today, media outlets have legitimized anonymous comments and commentary.

Commenting on the news has its place, but now instead of an audience at the watercooler, the audience is worldwide. Once anonymous comments became acceptable more than a decade ago, it was only a short period before politically-biased entities created websites and social media outlets spreading opinion as news. It’s much easier to be a purveyor of “fake news” in the age of the internet. There has been bad behavior in mass media since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but now it’s easier than ever to mass produce “fake news.”

Every president and administration since the founding of our nation has been criticized in the media. This coverage went through a revolution during the Watergate investigation into the administration of President Richard Nixon. Journalists uncovered a conspiracy of illegal actions that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation.

Since then, the professional and personal lives of presidents have been roundly covered. The people have a right to know the actions of the president, the president’s administration, those in Congress and the Supreme Court.

Trump is the most media-savvy president in our nation’s history. Trump doesn’t really define “fake news.” Instead, it’s his definition for negative news about his administration. The president has freedom of speech like any other American. 

Trump has been able to defend or deflect the fluid nature of changes in his administration through social media. He tosses red herrings at legitimate concerns through explosive commentary on Twitter. He runs circles around those who try to pin him down on policy. Trump, like him or not, is brilliant in this capacity.

Trump’s shotgun-like approach using the term “fake news” is aided by the fact that the media does a poor job policing itself. The “fourth estate” is supposed to provide checks and balances to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. The media used to hold high standards of integrity as to what it published as news. Journalists were taught to provide information cross-checked by at least two independent, vetted sources. These standards don’t exist on a wide scale any longer.

One of the most influential writers about journalism, Walter Lippmann, said, “The purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

Lippmann said that the truth doesn’t emerge perfectly or instantly, but instead it comes through consistent journalism. With the mix of “fake news” being interspersed among properly-prepared news, the nation gets a muddled message. This has left people searching for news outlets with which they agree. The citizens of the United States should not be left only with media outlets that they can choose based on beliefs. Instead, they should be able to easily find the best presented, in-depth, impartial journalism. Trump met recently with A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times. Sulzberger said he told Trump that using terms like “fake news” and calling journalists enemies of the American people was, “not just divisive, but increasingly dangerous.”

Sulzberger is correct. Trump’s rhetoric creates a physical danger to journalists and confuses people as to their ability to trust what is reported. Yet, skepticism the public has about the media is legitimate. The media is a mix of qualified journalists countered by biased providers of opinion. Journalism is much more complex than opinionated free speech. It takes more resources to provide journalism and media companies, most obviously those on television, have found they can make greater profits from opinion while skimping on real journalism.

Many publishers and editors fiercely defend journalism and work to ensure news is factual and accurate. Standards of impartiality must be uniform and closely monitored. 

There should be benchmarks — not to limit free speech, but to identify those who are practicing journalists. Consideration should be given to establishing a strong, well-organized entity that oversees journalists to protect the profession and its participants.

President Trump is correct in saying that “fake news” exists and those who present and exploit it are enemies of the people. Unbiased journalists practicing the highest standards of their profession do not present fake news. They are protecting the people. Trump should shape his message to tell the public that journalism is essential to our nation.

Journalism must work to revolutionize itself and keep news separate from opinion. Otherwise the “fake news” phenomena will continue to erode the integrity of the news, which the citizenry depends upon to ensure their rights are protected.

— Matt Johnson is publisher of the Monroe Times. His column is published Wednesdays.