“Truth, No Fear.” Engraved on a pen given to me by a close friend and fellow journalist.
I want to tell you a story about my Granny, a brilliant woman and a voracious news consumer. She studied journalism in college and for my entire life, I remember the TV in her house was either tuned to the local news or to CNN.
That is, until the Summer of 2015. That August, my husband and I walked in to her house, rounded the corner from the kitchen to the living room where she was sitting in her chair, watching her huge flat screen TV, tuned to…. MSNBC!
I said, “Granny! I’ve never seen you watch anything but CNN! Why did you change it to MSNBC?”
And in her sweet voice, she replied innocently, “Well, they say more of what I think.”
And that’s when I knew we were in trouble. Not because she was watching MSNBC, but because I knew she was a smart woman. She was a voter and a critical thinker. And even this very smart, 89 year old lady had fallen victim to the trap. That trap of watching or reading or listening to whatever fits the narrative we like.
That's how we get in trouble as news consumers. That's where we stop being critical thinkers. And if that could happen to my Granny, I knew it could happen to anyone.
When we only watch or read the news that confirms our own way of thinking, we become less likely to believe the things we don't like-- even if they're true-- and more likely to believe what we want to believe, even if it is a lie.
And voila-- we play right into the hands of the REAL “fake news” machine.
The first real fake news I encountered probably didn't come from the Russians. It was a chain email going around before the 2008 election and it told me NOT to vote for Barack Obama because..... he was “a Muslim!”
I knew Barack Obama wasn't Muslim (I wouldn't have cared if he was, but I knew he wasn't). And this lie offended me on a very personal level for many reasons. First, it was forwarded to me by a member of my own extended family. That hurt. I responded by telling my relative the truth, that, for starters, Barack Obama was not a Muslim. Secondly, what if “Muslim” had been replaced with “Jew” in that email? How would that feel? Because we’re Jewish, also a minority religion in the United States. And that ugliness and bigotry isn't who we are. Thankfully, my relative said he only sent the email so I could “see what was going around.”
By the way, I scrolled through many forwards and replies and found the email address of the person who sent that email to my relative and explained to her that Barack Obama was not a Muslim. She told me he was and she knew that for a FACT and that’s why she wouldn’t be voting for him for President. I suggested to her that she might be a bigot.
That experience made me sad because it was the first time I realized some people don't want to know the truth. They just don't. They'll believe the lie because it's what they want to believe. We see it today. Politely fact check someone on Facebook and see how that turns out for you. And for journalists, that is so hard, because the vast majority have dedicated their professional lives to the truth.
Journalists are not “fake news.” Not the “enemy of the American people.” Journalism is the only profession protected by the U.S. Constitution. Think about that, will you?
I absolutely believe partisan media outlets are BAD for the American people. They discourage critical thinking. They push people to extremism. They create this hateful, uncivilized discourse that was not nearly so widespread before they existed. We wonder why we are so divided as a nation. I believe this is one of the biggest contributing factors.
All of that said, and it’s important to understand, most of these outlets are not "fake news." Fake news is a completely made up story. No basis in fact. These left or right leaning outlets are just biased-- and most people would say that's not journalism-- but it's not a Russian guy in his basement making up stories about Hillary Clinton and a pizza parlor.
I hope most people understand that a person who sits at a desk and tells you their opinion about what’s going on in the world is not a journalist. That person is an entertainer.
It's a tough time for journalists and some of that the industry has brought upon itself. Because the line between reporter and entertainer has been blurred, some people truly don’t believe journalists can be unbiased. But in my experience, it isn’t difficult to have a personal opinion and still do a job professionally. Just like I’m sure you do at your job.
But many journalists are also Americans. I'm a taxpayer. I'm a wife and a daughter and a sister to a brother with a disability. My sister-in-law is an immigrant. The families of two of my closest friends came to this country as refugees. One of my closest friends is Muslim. I'm an aunt. I'm a journalist. I'm a woman. I am Jewish. I’m a small business owner. I use gasoline to run my vehicle. Pretty much everyone in my family has a pre-existing condition. So what's going on in the world today impacts me as a human. When I anchored the news every night, I certainly had my own personal opinions, but I was still able to present the news in an unbiased way.
That said, recently, one of my friends made an observation I just couldn’t stop thinking about. You remember the old Fox News slogan "Fair and Balanced.” (You'll notice they quietly dropped that last year. Because even they know they’re not).
But that's what we were always taught to be as journalists. Fair and balanced. And my friend made a good point. He said, “You know, I think it's less about being fair and balanced--- and more about the facts and the truth.”
The facts and the truth. Not those alternative facts. Facts don't change. The truth is always the truth, even if it’s not the truth you want to hear. And sometimes, there are not two sides to a story.
Example: President Trump says he did not mock a reporter’s disability. He says, no, no, I never did that. But it's on video. We ALL saw it. Do we say, “well the other side is President Trump says he didn't mock a disabled person.” Wait. But he did. We're currently watching it on video. Do you say he's lying? (I would say yes, you do). These are new challenges because some people will believe calling out the lie is being biased against the President. But really, it’s just telling the truth.
I never worked in a national newsroom, but I can tell you for sure, in my 15 years in local newsrooms, we didn’t sit around and say, “OK, what stories are we going to cover today that are negative or positive about the President?” Or candidate Clinton in 2016. It just didn’t happen.
But even that may no longer be sacred, as large media corporations buy up local news stations and mandate certain scripted, partisan coverage. I’m grateful I don’t have to make the ethical decisions many journalists are faced with today, in that regard.
If you really want to be a savvy news consumer, seek out the outlets that are “just the facts.”
I’m not afraid to tell you my everyday go-tos: Reuters, BBC, the Associated Press and NPR. And, of course, the local news of your choosing.
I believe this is one of the most important moments for good journalism in modern history. Right now-- journalists HAVE to get it right, period. And when it’s wrong, say it’s wrong.
But it is up to us to decide how we nourish our minds-- as much as it is up to us to decide how we nourish our bodies. If you wouldn’t eat a candy bar or smoke a cigarette because it’s bad for your body, isn’t it also wise not to ingest poison for our minds and hearts?
If you’re a partisan-information consumer, I challenge you; turn off, or stop reading, your preferred outlet for one week. Try one of the more “middle of the road” options above. See if you feel better about the world. About your neighbors. Maybe you’ll learn something new or see something in a different light. At the very least, maybe you’ll just be a little less angry. And at the very best, maybe you’ll have just a little more empathy.
You know, my Granny had firmly held values and beliefs and I really think she would be aghast to see what has become of our political discourse. I’m not sure she would have turned off her MSNBC completely, but I wish she was here today so I could talk to her about all of this. I know, ultimately, we would have been on the same page, the one where all that really matters in the end, is the truth and the facts.
NOTE: I wrote the above just hours before the attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. My heart is broken for those journalists and all of the Capital Gazette family. Newsrooms are families. There is something about the long hours, the working holidays and weekends and overnights, the ridiculous pay, the constant deadlines. It binds you together. Every journalist will tell you the same thing. Sometimes, the families are dysfunctional, but they are family all the same. Because the goal is always the same. To shine the light in dark places. To hold the powerful accountable. To give voice to the voiceless. To make our communities better.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose five of my work family members in a single, horrific day. I cried. And it all came back to me so quickly. I remember reading threatening emails to my old newsroom and thinking about the best ways out of our building from my desk, just in case. As the rhetoric against journalists began to ramp up around the end of 2015, I had a plan in my head detailing exactly how I would get out of our building from different locations inside. Fear didn’t consume me, but it just seemed logical to have a plan. I remember a handful of nights, walking out to find a local police car in our parking lot after a threat to our station or to one of our reporters.
These were local reporters killed in Annapolis. A local sales assistant. Just doing their jobs. Trying to make their community better. No one should be afraid to go to work and no one should leave for work and not return home because of a senseless act of violence. Please never forget these people. Know their names and tell their stories. They gave their lives to tell ours.
Photo Courtesy: Baltimore Sun
Wendi Winters, Special Publications
Rebecca Smith, Sales Assistant
Gerald Fischman, Editorial Page Editor
Rob Hiassen, Columnist & Assistant Editor
John McNamara, Bowie/Croft/West County Staff Writer.
Write in peace now, friends.