Fake news and ‘alternative facts’ are threatening our democracy

Being a journalist is an extremely difficult and unforgiving job. I understand this firsthand because it was my profession for more than five years.

It’s called the ‘third estate’ for a reason. You serve as the objective storyteller. You hear both sides of the story, and then you report the facts and how both sides interpret it.

A journalist is not supposed to make friends. Indeed, if you’re doing your job correctly, you’re more likely to form enemies.

But what is expected between a journalist and the main entities it reports on is a mutual sense of respect and cooperation. An understanding that you’re doing your job and I’m doing my job. Sometimes our interests will align, and sometimes they will not. Nonetheless, we can maintain a professional relationship and treat each other cordially.

Journalism also carries a significant burden of responsibility. As the storyteller and purveyor of facts, you’re expected to present your information truthfully and objectively.

With your pen, you have the ability to shape public opinion. Thus, it is essential to get it right.

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It is fair to be skeptical of the media. One should always be vigilant of the truth and conduct their own research to verify facts, while double-checking sources that are listed in any given article or report.

But what you can not do is dismiss the press entirely. Because without it, democracy cannot prevail.

And right now, that very ingredient for democratic success — a free and open press — is under siege by the Trump administration.

On the stump, Trump pledged to “open up the libel laws,” a clear breach of First Amendment rights. While he’s toned down on that specific threat, the first few days of his administration have shown a clear agenda to undermine and discredit the press.

Two terms we’ve seen thrown around lately are things I’d never thought I’d hear associated with 21st century American politics: ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts.’

Fake news refers to deliberate attempts to publish stories to influence public opinion even though the writer knows the content to be false. The New York Times has done extensive reporting on this subject, actually interviewing people who have personally engaged in this nefarious enterprise.

Alternative facts is a term coined this past weekend by White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway to explain the conflicting data (proven to be false) used by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer during his cantankerous first press briefing last weekend.

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Conservatives, emboldened by Trump, have begun using the “fake news” label incorrectly to slam stories that they don’t like, for instance, CNN’s reporting of the explosive yet unverified dossier compiled by a former British Spy regarding illicit personal and professional information Russia is harboring on Donald Trump.

Buzzfeed made the controversial decision to publish the dossier – which was brought to the attention of the FBI last summer, which, in turn, briefed Presidents Obama and Trump on it — in full, a decision that Buzzfeed’s editor-in-chief defended a few days later.

As a result, Donald Trump called these two news organizations “fake news” and a “failing pile of garbage,” respectively.

Under this administration, the once stable line between fact and fiction has become blurred, and I don’t think people appreciate how dangerous this is.

It is a fundamental need for the electorate to be educated. In a republic, we are the ones who choose who represents us. And we need an observant and watchful press to get us the information we need.

Undermining and mocking the press is what dictators do. Spreading lies to hoodwink the public is what authoritarian regimes do.

This is not OK.

Now, more than ever, the press needs to be protected, not denigrated and antagonized.

You can follow Trump’s lead and trash journalists all you want. They’re still going do to their job and tell you what you need to know.

I advise you to listen.

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