On Presidents’ Day, we are missing our previous commander in chief, and recalling when he assessed his relationship with sometimes contentious media:
“That’s the point of this relationship. You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people that sent us here.” (Press Conference, 01.18.2017) Obama held to this conviction throughout his presidency.
When Rolling Stone asked in 2010 about adversarial press coverage, Obama responded: “Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We’ve got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated.”
The rise of punditry on cable news, and the ascendancy of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, have of course challenged reporters to come up with more stories, all the time. Journalism still matters. And many journalists remain up to the task. They still train, they still toil. They still practice ethical and thorough investigation. They still source their material and report on information about their subjects, rather than on motivation or other subjective matters. Our government officials sometimes relish getting press coverage, and sometimes resent the coverage. What they must never, ever do, is gain the ability to silence our media, ‘mainstream’ or otherwise, in America.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Our founders made this the FIRST amendment to our Constitution. Pretty important, it seems.
We can have a robust discussion of how ‘alternative’ sources complement the so-called mainstream media. Fair enough. We can debate the need for expansion beyond the historically ‘big players’ in print and television media. Great. But always remember, journalism matters. No matter where along the political spectrum we lay, we must choose media sources that adhere to journalistic standards.
Readers, viewers and listeners have responsibility in our current media environment. We cast one ballot when we choose to subscribe to a giant of investigative journalism, like the Washington Post or the New York Times. We cast a different ballot when we look something up on wikipedia instead and take it just as literally. We cast one ballot if we pick up Newsweek magazine, and a different ballot if we pick up a National Enquirer. Either choice is ok, as long as we acknowledge the consequences. If all I know about the world comes from wikipedia and the National Enquirer, I need to recognize the limits of my global awareness.
On social media we have a responsibility to source information before we share it, like it, quote it, or believe it. You can see where a story comes from when you see it in your friend’s feed. If it’s from a creditable source, click away. Retweet, Share, Post. If it’s from something called, oh I don’t know – newsRus.com, or shinyfacts.com, or reallythis.com, you get the picture… walk away. If it’s a real story, you’ll see it in another source. If you want to know if it’s a real story, google the key words and see if any reputable media sources have covered it.
Reputable news sources can be anywhere on the political spectrum, and we should all keep that in mind. I may like some sources more than others. I should not find completely different facts, depending on the network or publication I choose. The current American administration demonstrably does not believe in a free press. I want to give credit to a right-leaning network (Fox) for recognizing, along with many others in media and government, that our current President’s recent assertion that the media are “the enemy of the American people” was an absurd and dangerous statement.
It is ironic that far right activists are the ones calling ‘fake news’ whenever they see a story that diverges from the fact-free narrative their candidate of choice has been feeding them. Ironic because it was a godfather of the contemporary far right, Dick Cheney, who actually fomented the fake news that cost our country more than four thousand military lives, and so much more. When he was Vice President, Cheney fed false information to a reporter working at the New York Times, then cited her story (which he had provided) as evidence of his own misrepresentations, and the circle fueled itself until there was an actual quorum in the administration at the time who seemed to think that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They did not. The disgraced reporter, Judith Miller, tried later to rebrand herself and sell a memoir, without winning over her former critics. Miller and Cheney co-conspired in the most egregious and literal “fake news” story we have seen in years. They did not make a mistake. They did not misstate something fundamentally true. They lied, and reinforced one another’s lies. Using the masthead of an otherwise reputable newspaper and the pulpit of our White House as their platforms. It was not journalism.
True stories with which the subject disagrees, is decidedly not fake news. Let’s long remember that.