news

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Assault on Truth

It is hard for me to think of something that has disturbed me more in the past couple of years than the assault on truth. I commend TIME Magazine for naming, as their annual “Person of the Year,” the courageous journalists and newspeople who have braved ridicule, assault, incarceration, and even death, as exemplified by a selected group that includes the murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

I am only two “degrees of separation” from a photojournalist who was ambushed and assassinated in Venezuela for his portrayal of life under Hugo Chavez. Chavez had the audacity to call the family and extend his sympathies. He asked what he could do for them, and they responded by promptly leaving the country.

Given the magnitude of the assault on truth we witness every day, I struggle to organize a commentary on this assault that fits the format of a blog post. It is simply too big an issue. So for now, I want to leave you with a comment on fighting this assault, and a quote (taken from TIME Magazine) that captures, for me, how very important journalistic truth is.

The greater the assault on truth, the more dire the need for critical thinking. I have started a list of books I have found helpful in pointing out how we, as informed citizens, can distinguish truth from falsehood, and how to hold accountable those who attack the truth.

Kofi Annan, late Secretary-General of the United Nations, had this to say:

“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”