The Scary Danger of “Fake News” Talk

Fake news? The press is the enemy of the people? I am up to here with that.

newspapersDenigration of the press may be a way to excite some (happily minimal) percentage of Americans, but for all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, geezers, millennials and certainly everyone wanting to preserve our fragile, shared democracy – it is beyond dangerous.

I have been a newspaper/magazine writer for well over a half-century. I have made a lot of mistakes (most recently I omitted one 12-year-old from a list of grandchildren in a feature story; whew!) But I have NEVER knowingly written an untrue sentence. Anything not verifiably correct, furthermore, has been corrected by an editor. (We have now even cleaned up my act about the missing granddaughter with a follow-up story in the same newspaper.)

So, is attacking the free press just playing politics, or is it dangerous? Look at Turkey. At a conference in Budapest just three years ago I sat next to a university professor from Istanbul who said she could face arrest when she returned. “And if I were a journalist,” Demonstrations in Turkeyshe said “I’d be far more afraid.” Looking at the videos of journalists – and others – being led to trials that will most certainly lead to long sentences at best is a sobering view of where Turkey is now, under an autocrat (whom the U.S. theoretically supports.)

PBS News/Hour was recently anchored for one week by science correspondent Miles O’Brien, who has been a part of my family (it’s complicated) for more than a quarter century. I have not always agreed – familial love aside – with the personal choices this distinguished journalist has made. But I’m willing to bet he has NEVER written or spoken a knowingly false word in reporting the news. He is in a list of personal journalistic friends & heroes that include Roger Mudd, Charles McDowell, Belva Davis and a number of contemporary journalists – Michael Fitzgerald (Boston,) Caitlin Kelly (NY,) that list could go on. Not one of these news reporters ever has, or ever would, write or speak a word that was fake.

Here is what the First Amendment says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free  exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Floyd Abrams

Floyd Abrams

Author Floyd Abrams was in San Francisco recently plugging his new book The Soul of the First Amendment. The talk, moderated by U.C.Berkeley Dean of the School of Journalism Ed Wasserman, involved reviews of cases – and they are legion – Abrams has argued, and wide-ranging talk about the freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. But one opening remark, almost a throw-away, stuck with me. Abrams mentioned that President Trump’s comments about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups would be criminal in other democracies, citing cases in Canada and Finland that had resulted in criminal convictions for lesser remarks.

That, though, is not what most distresses this longtime reporter. I understand and appreciate the defense of free speech, even terrible speech with which I strongly disagree. (Think Westboro Baptist “Church.”) What makes my all-American heart ache is the speech that seeks to undermine our free press. If enough people can be led to distrust the press, an autocratic leader doesn’t need to bother throwing journalists in jail.

Think about it. Most reporters, commentators, broadcasters are fairly bright men and women who could make a lot more money doing something else. Do they go into the news business because of a passion to follow a story, to find the truth and set it free?

Or are they just in it for the fake?

Democracy is a fragile concept. After all these years, I hope ours doesn’t break.

Identity Theft: Crime without Punishment

Caitlin Kelly posted a raw but fascinating essay earlier today, My Con Man Wasn’t Madoff, but Just as Ruthless and Deceptive, that took me back to another cautionary tale worth sharing.

My son, who flies for a major U.S. airline, came home from a trip a few years back, got off the plane and called his then-fiancee (she married him soon, happily for all concerned.) “I’m at the park with a picnic,” she said; “come on out.” It was a beautiful summer afternoon. Changing into casual clothes, he drove straight to the park and found her at the designated spot, where they shared a lovely, leisurely time.

Things were not lovely when he returned to his car. It had been broken into, in broad daylight on a well-traveled street. The thief had made off with his pilot’s uniform and airline ID, his daybook, checkbook, wallet, computer, ID — his life. Plus the financial life of a family he’d been advising with a church group, also on his computer hard drive.

After reporting the crime to the police, my son began the arduous task of rebuilding his life: canceling credit cards, changing passwords, you may know the drill. Within a very short time he discovered that the thief — who had to look somewhat like his white, male, 30-something target since he was using photo ID all over the place — had left a paper trail any incompetent novice detective could follow. Problem is, nobody wanted to bother.

Why? Banks were unconcerned with those few several-hundred-dollar checks; they covered the losses. Retailers said insurance would cover the illicit purchases; they cared not one whit about losses that ran into the thousands. The police had other fish to fry, and explained with a galling indifference that even if they hauled the guy into court he’d probably get off, or quickly out of jail.

The thief eventually quit cashing checks with my son’s name inexpertly forged, and the credit cards soon lost their usefulness — so presumably he went on to another victim. But who picks up the tab for all this? You and I, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public, thanks to those losses being passed directly along through jacked-up prices and hidden or not-so-hidden fees.

It is hard, when you’re the victim and know you could easily find the victimizer, to accept the fact that justice will not be done. Especially when a huge chunk of your life has gone to replacing and rebuilding that life. But just as Caitlin found with her con man, crimes that loom large to many of us simply go unpunished. So we swallow hard, lock our doors and learn not to leave everything in the car.

We are enjoying seeing Bernie Madoff’s stuff auctioned off while he sits in prison; he’s paying for a few of the fish that were too little to fry. But it doesn’t seem quite enough.