Let's focus on real journalism — not so-called 'fake news'

Jan 18, 2018

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

President Trump's "Fake News Awards," posted late Wednesday, were more gimmick than "gotcha" — worth a moment's attention, perhaps, but not much more.

Unsurprisingly, the "winners" were CNN, The New York Times, ABC News, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek. The announcement began by calling out a Times columnist who predicted the economy would sag under Trump, and ended with yet another CAPITAL LETTER-laced rant about the ongoing investigation into Russian interference with U.S. elections.

The "awards," inexplicably delayed for nearly two weeks, drew preannouncement criticism of Trump's ongoing, near-daily attacks on the free press. In a Senate floor speech earlier Wednesday, Sen. Jeff Flake compared Trump's criticism of journalists to attacks on critics by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

The awards listed several examples of news reports that were wrong, such as a mistaken account of handshakes exchanged with the president of Poland and his spouse, the alleged removal of a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office, and a misrepresented crowd size at a Pensacola, Fla., rally.

Most notable for me was the minor nature of many of the stories involved, and that all were promptly corrected by the news outlets responsible for them — in once case, within 20 minutes and with a very frank admission of error.

Of course, the details and the awards themselves were not the point. The honorifics were just another part of Trump's campaign against what he calls "fake news" — whether it is journalism that is flawed or just journalism that Trump doesn't like. (As it happens, the Newseum has tools that the president — and the rest of us — can use to tell the difference between real and "junk" news.)

Journalists should take special note of the president's list, examine it for any useful information to help in doing their jobs better, and then move on.

In my view, the real takeaway from this latest attack on the press is all the stories he didn't or couldn't mention, because those stories had nothing to do with him or because they are not "dishonest." Just consider some of the reporting among the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winners, as described by the Pulitzer committee:

  • The New York Daily News and ProPublica, for uncovering widespread abuse of eviction rules by the police to oust hundreds of people, most of them poor minorities.
  • The Staff of East Bay Times, Oakland, Ca., for relentless coverage of the "Ghost Ship" fire, exposing the city's failure to take actions that might have prevented it.
  • Eric Eyre of Charleston Gazette-Mail, Charleston, W.Va., for courageous reporting, in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.
  • The Salt Lake Tribune Staff, for a string of vivid reports revealing the perverse, punitive and cruel treatment given to sexual assault victims at Brigham Young University.
  • C. J. Chivers of The New York Times, for showing, through an artful accumulation of fact and detail, that a Marine's postwar descent into violence reflected neither the actions of a simple criminal nor a stereotypical case of PTSD.
  • Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times, Storm Lake, Iowa, for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.
  • Daniel Berehulak, freelance photographer, for powerful storytelling through images published in The New York Times showing the callous disregard for human life in the Philippines brought about by a government assault on drug dealers and users.
  • E. Jason Wambsgans of Chicago Tribune, for a superb portrayal of a 10-year-old boy and his mother striving to put the boy's life back together after he survived a shooting in Chicago.

Every president, at some moment in their administration, critiques the news media of their day. Harry Truman threatened in a letter to punch a music critic who unfavorably reviewed a piano performance by his daughter Margaret. Richard Nixon even developed an "enemies list," which potentially would have gone past mere criticism into areas like tax audits and the FCC television license review project. George W. Bush famously was caught on a video pointing out a reporter for The New York Times while describing him as a "major league asshole."

But those examples represent a narrow slice of the daily journalism practiced nationwide, where tens of thousands of news professionals tell us each day the local and regional news we need in order to make informed decisions in our lives. Each day, those reports tell us whether our child's school lunch is safe, what the city or county or state is doing with our tax dollars, whether the flu season will be mild or severe (and reminding us to get preventative shots).

We learn about the good people who lived and died in our communities, about brave souls battling life's hard knocks to make a better life for themselves and their families, and at times, those crooks and wrongdoers who would prey on our fellow citizens. We often learn things we could not otherwise know, from government secrets exposed by whistleblowers, to whether it's a good day to buy a car or sell a house, to emerging national security threats.

To be sure, in his two years as candidate-then-president, Trump has elevated attacks on the American news media, and at times on individual journalists, to an all-time high. He has used Twitter to drum up attention and — at least among a segment of the nation — the conviction that he's treated unfairly by journalists.

And as many have noted, he poses a danger, not by any particular tweet or bleat, but in the persistence of his criticism, which may lead over time to a lessening of the American commitment to freedom of expression and of the press.

On a global scale, Trump's constant, glib tweets about "fake news," and his infamous declaration that journalists are "enemies of the people," have encouraged dictators and despots from Russian to Turkey to China and elsewhere to use similar claims to suppress the news media in their nations.

In a bit of tragic irony, those who would most eloquently challenge Trump's dismissal of the role of a free press cannot speak for themselves: They are the 2,305 journalists noted on the Newseum's Journalists Memorial. Those journalists, and many thousands more through the years, knowingly risked their lives to report on war, drug cartels, criminal gangs and corrupt officials. They reported on the outbreak of deadly diseases like Ebola, or in the face of deadly natural disasters where their own safety was in peril.

They are the Mexican journalist Gumaro Perez Aguilando, killed a few weeks ago by a gunman during his son's school Christmas party, for reporting on drug trafficking and security. They are the NPR photographer David Gilkey, killed while reporting on the war in Afghanistan — and as he had done throughout his career, while providing poignant images of how people were affected by the conflict. They are American freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, beheaded by members of ISIS for simply reporting real news from the war-torn Middle East. And there is Austin Tice, a U.S. journalist believed to be held by terrorists in Syria since 2012. I doubt Austin will make Trump's award list, but he must never be absent from our thoughts.

As a nation, let's not pay any more attention or give more merit to Trump's self-serving "award show" than we do other award shows about movies, television shows or beauty pageants: Interesting, but in the end, nothing more than someone's opinion — even if he is president of the United States.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.