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Defanging ‘fake news’

Some have noted how effectively Pres. Donald Trump has “weaponized fake news”, undermining a central pillar of press freedom – credibility. Admittedly, the free press has not always told the truth and sometimes pursued the hidden agenda of publishers or network moguls, but perhaps at no time has the people’s trust fallen to such a sad, dismal level, thanks in no small to the perfidious, sustained assault against the press.

Article 19, a freedom of expression campaign group, recently unveiled the results of study done on 172 countries between 2006 and 2016, using a metric it called the Expression Agenda (based on various indicators that included corruption media bias, harassment of journalists, etc.) Thomas Hughes, executive director of Article 19, said journalists are threatened by intimidation, prosecution and even murder.

“Global media freedom is at its lowest level since the start of the century,” the report observed.

The rise of despots around the world and the chaos spawned by unconventional populist politicians like Mr. Trump are hardly new. Politico Magazine reported on the historical parallels between the Trump presidency and past administrations, including that of the brash Andrew Jackson who looks to have inspired the current occupant of the White House. The bitter debate over slavery nearly paralyzed Congress in the 1850s, rending the Union, Politico noted. The demand for newspapers in both the North and South soared during the Civil War, said Penn State’s Ford Risley.

“The practices, technological development – the importance of the telegraph, the use of illustrations, for example — and the growth in demand for newspapers, so many of these things came together during this remarkable and tragic event,” he explained.

The world’s cataclysms are also often the catalysts for innovation, including in the world of media. And every major change seems to resurrect the debate on the role of the press. Is it what African American journalist Ida B. Wells said – “There is no educator to compare with the press” or Lenin’s exhortation for the press “be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator but also a collective organizer of the masses.”

“Me Too” went viral on social media, according to popular lore, after actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to tweet the hashtag to show the widespread nature of misogynistic behavior. The issue just seemed to explode after Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein was forced to resign after accusations from women he reportedly victimized. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me Too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” Milano averred.

It took a clearly political dimension when Republican Roy Moore refused to back down from the Alabama senatorial race despite the allegations of pedophilia by women as young as 14 years when the deed was said to have happened; Democrats Sen. Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers resigned over charges of sexual misconduct. And the poles just kept falling – ‘Today’ host Matt Lauer, then as we were writing this column, renown chef Mario Batali was shut out from his TV show and restaurants after he allegedly touched and groped at least four women over a 20-year period. “Although the identities of most of the individuals mentioned in these stories have not been revealed to me, much of the behavior described does, in fact, match up with ways I have acted. That behavior was wrong and there are no excuses,” he declared.

And yet in the realm of politics at least, “Me Too” has collided with disbelief and controversy. Pres. Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging last year, in the heat of the presidential campaign, about an assault that he claimed was simply “locker room talk” and didn’t actually happen. But then several women surfaced to charge him of precisely such misconduct. Now, there are calls for him to step down just like the others. That, according to some, is the raison d’etre for “Me Too”.

Here, as in so many other crisis and controversy today, the free press becomes imperative. The press, it turns out, is not only the designated agitator and organizer; perhaps more importantly, it it’s also the designated truth-teller. There lies the challenge. “Journalists,” said Bob Woodward, “should not have a dog in the political fight except to find that best obtainable version of the truth”.


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