Yes, the truth still matters

  • Trump has sown doubts about the veracity of news reporting by promoting the notion that media spews “fake news”

Dec 15, 2017-Of all the questions that the ascendancy of Donald Trump has raised—on the value of political experience in governing, on the fitness of business executives as government executives or the profile of the Republicans as defenders of the rich and the Democrats as the sentinels of the poor—none is as perplexing as perhaps the central question of the age:

Does the truth still matter?

It emerged again recently when reports surfaced that the president, who had previously acknowledged his presence on the “Access Hollywood” videotape, has suggested that he did not make the comments on the tape. He also resumed questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the United States—despite having said he accepted it as true last year. In a speech, Mr. Trump, contradicting almost every analysis of the tax bill, said the measure would hurt wealthy people, including himself.

For nearly a half-century in journalism, from hometown cub reporter to national political correspondent to metro daily executive editor, I’ve navigated with the aid of a newspaperman’s North Star: the conviction that there is such a thing as objective truth that can be discovered and delivered through dispassionate hard work and passionate good faith, and that the product of that effort, if thoroughly documented, would be accepted as the truth.

Mr. Trump has turned that accepted truth on its head, sowing doubts about the veracity of news reporting by promoting the notion that the mainstream media spews “fake news.” Employing an evocative, sinister phrase dating to the French Revolution and embraced by Lenin and his Soviet successors, he has declared that great portions of the press are the “enemy of the people.”

Much of the Trump rhetoric on the press, to be sure, is less statecraft than stagecraft, designed to dismiss negative stories—as if the media had been never critical of past presidents instead of the equal-opportunity pugilists who bedeviled Bill Clinton (in the Monica Lewinsky episode) and George W. Bush (in the aftermath of the Iraq war).

Even so, Mr. Trump can be credited with prompting, however inadvertently, the most profound period of press self-assessment in decades—and it comes at a period of unusual financial peril for the mainstream media. All around are sad affirmations of the diminishing credibility of the press, disheartening reminders that at least a third of the country, and perhaps more, regards our work as meaningless, biased or untruthful. In newsrooms, as at newsstands across the country, difficult but vital questions about the methods and motives of the press are being raised, forcing newsmongers and consumers of news to question long-held assumptions.

Earlier this year, Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican whose district includes the southern suburbs of Pittsburgh, told a closed-door fund-raiser in the tony Duquesne Club that our newspaper, the Post-Gazette, specialized in “fake news.” One of my sources called me while the session was underway, and when it ended, I telephoned the astonished Mr. Murphy and demanded an 

apology, which he granted only reluctantly. Eight months later our paper reported that the congressman, ardently anti-abortion, had sought to persuade his mistress to undergo the procedure. He later resigned under pressure.

This has become routine. The most prominent public-relations officer in Pittsburgh told us that a perfectly benign, and completely accurate, report on his institution’s activities was another example of fake news. Our police reporter repeatedly gets emails accusing her of producing fake news. Readers have called our high-tech writer charging she had produced fake news. I speak in the community all the time, and in the past year the question of whether The Post-Gazette is a purveyor of fake news never fails to come up. It’s almost always the first question.

My answer: In the 15 years I have been executive editor, we have not knowingly published one story, or one paragraph, or one sentence, or one syllable that was not true.

It’s not that these questions never emerged before. It was possible to assemble established facts to argue, for example, that the 906 bills passed by Congress from 1947 to 1949—including the Taft-Hartley Act and the major reorganization of the armed services and the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency—meant that Congress was productive in that period. But it also was possible to arrange the same facts, or to pick some facts and to omit others, to argue quite the opposite, as Harry Truman did in the 1948 presidential election when, in politically potent rhetoric, he spoke of the “do-nothing 80th Congress.”

During Watergate, Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke of “nattering nabobs of negativism” to attack the press that bit by bit was uncovering the truth of President Richard Nixon’s lies. This year we had Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, introducing the notion of “alternative facts.”

Her phrase became an instant flash point, for almost no one seriously believed that provable facts had contradictory alternatives. There is no alternative to the fact that the sun is 93 million miles from the earth, nor to the fact that the earth’s atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, nor even to the fact that Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was smaller than Mr. Obama’s.

Though political figures often tell whoppers, it is incontrovertible that there is such a thing as the truth. The larger question remains: Do people still care?

They should, and need to. The human story is replete with examples of moments when the truth was traduced or when the truth was obscured: the disputed reports about how the battleship Maine was sunk in 1898; the trumped-up conspiracy surrounding the 1933 burning of the Reichstag that led to a brutal suspension of civil liberties shortly after the Nazis took power in Germany; the false contention that the U-2 reconnaissance plane flown by Francis Gary Powers in 1960 wasn’t engaged in espionage over the Soviet Union; the misleading claims about the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin episode that drew the United States deeper into Vietnam; the repeated obfuscations of the 1970s Watergate scandal; Bill Clinton’s 1998 denials of a relationship with Monica Lewinsky; and the false belief that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

The president’s taunts have prompted long-overdue if uncomfortable and unwelcome reflection in our newsroom and others. But it has also prompted all of us to be more humble, more careful and more dedicated than ever to the basic elements of our craft: to marshal facts, produce stories and pay little mind to criticism, whether from left or right.

To show, by our work, that the truth still matters.

—©2017 The New York Times                            

Published: 15-12-2017 08:28

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