News Manipulation Endangers Democracy
When I was a United Press International reporter in the 1980s, complaints about truth in reporting prompted editors to remind us to keep our eyes on “the horizon” — the line that separates truth from untruth. Reporters are like pilots, they would say. If you lose sight of the horizon, you are lost. We kept this in mind as we committed to reporting facts and choosing neutral language to filter out bias to the extent possible. We knew UPI’s credibility depended on our living by the Journalist’s Creed, which is printed on a brass plaque that hangs in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. We held a public trust; we were arbiters of what people know about the world. The authors of the U.S. Constitution intended that a free and fair press should oversee the separation of the three branches of government, the intention of which was to uphold democracy. I assume most news people still hold these overarching ideals for the news media. But many news organizations have allowed the news to be used for political and economic gain. When people who are part of the federal government disparage America’s most highly regarded news sources, citizens may find themselves untethered from the truth. The president counts on his followers to believe what he says, though much of it is easily proved untrue. Fox News — which ranks among the country’s major news sources — reports that what the president says is true and labels its competition’s reporting as fake news. Yet the need for the public to have access to the truth and to trust the media remains essential. A number of things have skewed journalism’s focus on truth. From the outset the news was monetized. As media progressed from print to broadcast and movies, the possibilities for profits grew. With the internet, public media became ever larger and more powerful corporate entities, wielding an ever greater influence on what people think. A second great impact came during the 2016 election, in which the idea of alternative facts and alternative truths came to be one of the most often repeated memes in government and the news. The danger to democracy caused by failures to deal primarily in truth is now critical, perhaps irreversible. People have argued about truth for millennia. In the fifth century B.C., an epic disagreement arose between the Greek writer and geographer Herodotus and Thucydides, his contemporary who was known as “the father of history.” They both believed understanding what came before can help us avoid old mistakes. But they differed over how history should be presented. Herodotus was famous for writing “The Histories,” an elegant literary narrative of the Persian War based on military accounts mixed with myths and legends. Thucydides criticized Herodotus for caring more about entertaining his readers than about revealing why people go to war and how peace might be achieved. Mixing myth and fact in history has been common through the ages. In Germany before and during World War II, national leaders never told citizens about the mass carnage they inflicted on Jews and other minorities. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin and a long line of leaders of Russia and the Soviet Union educated generations with revisionist history. The history of Persia, contained in an epic poem, “The Shahnama” or “The Book of Kings,” written in the 10th century, covers the history and culture of Persia from the creation to the invasion of Persia by Islamic invaders in the seventh century. It’s comprised more of myth than actual facts. The modern history of what we now know as Iran has been revised continually , as each ruler destroyed the vestiges of his predecessors. Ayatollah Ruhollah Kohmeini, for example, ordered the death of 9,000 followers of the shah of Iran after he was banished during the Iranian Revolution that began in 1979. Our own government has obfuscated inconvenient truths about the formation of Israel and the systematic subjugation of the Palestinians and the genocide of native Americans as we confiscated their land and banished them to preserves, to point out two examples. What we see today is not new. But it puts the great shining ideal that created this nation of laws made by a government formed of the people, by the people and for the people in grave danger. We’ve lost sight of the horizon.