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.

Dying way too young: Journalist Michael Hastings

News of the death of 33-year-old Michael Hastings in a fiery car crash June 18 has left everyone who knew him stunned. And it’s also left a giant hole in the heart of Real Journalism. Hastings was a Real Journalist.

I never knew Michael Hastings. But a few years ago, when we were both contributing to the late lamented True/Slant.com, he sent me a comment on something I’d written. That led me to check out what he was writing, which left me in the dust within a very few minutes. For a storyteller like me to get an affirmative nod from a journalist like Hastings felt like sort of a large gold star.

This is not to knock storytelling, which I consider one top way to convey truth (especially about difficult topics like death-and-dying or abortion.) Storytelling is broadband, real journalism is specific and it is a rare and precious thing.

Real journalism is fearless, aggressive, relentless and uncorruptible. When practiced by people like Michael Hastings it lets the rest of us know what is really happening in our democracy — which is the only way a democracy survives.

Former True/Slant now New York Times editor Michael Roston summed up the best advice to aspiring journalists who survive Hastings: “Try to be like him.”

On learning at 30… or 40… or…

True/Slant contributor Gina Welch, on turning 30 just now, posted a fine list of 20 things she learned in her twenties, at the precise moment when I’d been musing about the passage of time myself. A somewhat more elderly muse, that is, since mine was prompted by the realization that day before yesterday marked the 85th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. In case that doesn’t sound elderly enough, my parents were both born in 1897, whew.

So in response to Gina’s wisdom here are six things I learned in my sixties (which are way past, at that.) It was terribly hard not to plagiarize, especially Gina’s Listen to your mother, even if it’s only to her long-departed voice in your head, or Wallow not, advice that improves exponentially with age.

1 – Get up early in the morning. It’s way more fun when you aren’t doing it because the baby’s crying, the school bus is waiting or the boss is calling… but just because the To-Do list actually contains stuff you want to do. Plus, days have fewer hours in them.

2 – Go back to school. Classmates a generation or two younger can be wise beyond your years. After a lifetime of writing for newspapers and magazines (you remember print journalism?) I joined the Class of ’00 at the University of San Francisco to pick up an MFA in short fiction. Who knew? If you run into anyone ready to publish my short story collection, let me know. A few of them have actually seen the light of publication, but I’m going to publish The Marshallville Stories in full if I live long enough… or perhaps if I learn enough in my 70s.

3 – Medicare is good. Imagine not having to freak out at every bodily suggestion that fatal expenses could be right around the corner. Imagine everybody having that unfreakable experience. How about we pass health reform?

4 – Listen to your daughter. She can probably teach you a LOT about changing mores, gender identities, adventure travel and how to see the world. Not to mention low fashion, hair styling, organic food and living well.

5 – Listen to your granddaughter. She can definitely teach you about computer programs, digital photography, what 18-year-old college art students are doing, and teenage music. You can close your ears when the teenage music part comes.

6 – Count your blessings. Seriously. If you’re still able to get up in the morning and remember how to count, this is good exercise. And if you count forwards and then repeat the same numbers backward you have exercised your brain, which is increasingly important. At a certain point in life it is tempting to reflect on the world when nobody locked their doors and you dashed onto airplanes just as they were pulling up the steps. And people apologized if they inadvertently used the D-word in front of your mother (there’s her voice again in my head…) So it’s okay to count nostalgic blessings, too; just don’t forget about par courses or contemporary chamber music or sunsets over the Pacific or that grandson who speaks Mandarin and Spanish at 17…

Thanks, Gina. Happy Birthday.