When I was doing my graduate work in journalism, there was still an idealistic reverence for the role of the press. And one of the things my professors taught me left the greatest impression: Mass media wasn't just a way of getting endless trivia to the population. Rather, the media, as the eyes and ears of the nation, was given the responsibility for ensuring America's citizens had access to what was going on in their country and in the world surrounding it—the good, bad, sensational, mundane, horrifying and uplifting. It was not only politically essential stories but tales of lost dogs, discovered gold, and occasionally, news that makes a reader ecstatic.
I saw mass media as the protector of the truth and the watchdog of government—something as sacred as America itself. Over the years, my fundamental belief in the role of journalism hasn't changed, and I find myself angry with those who have, for the sake of money, damaged our faith in both print and electronic news sources.
The reality is that the legacy of the Founding Fathers can only be protected by an informed citizenry; the media is the de facto "fourth branch" of government, with the hallowed responsibility of shedding light on anything that might threaten our democracy. If voters are to make and exercise the fundamental right to participate in informed choice, the availability of truth is the most important component in that decision making process. The sad reality is that a vote means nothing if the information moving it is either absent or flawed.
As a student, I was keenly aware of the role of the press and mass media. Sadly, the job market for reporters and editors proved that there was not enough money in journalism to feed a family and have a reasonable lifestyle. (Of course, there are exceptions to that. Those same underpaid reporters, editors and photographers—ones who have paid their dues and endured the low wages, bad hours and years of being barked at by the boss—have in some cases risen to astronomical salaries and star status. Celebrity journalism is a gold mine for the elite group at the top of their game.)
During my time at the U, I studied a triple major of journalism, advertising and public relations. For a while, I worked as a copywriter for a small advertising agency. That, of course, was a very different kind of mass media. Actually, it was the opposite of responsible journalism—sensationalizing the best of the products and services while masking the weaker points—can't say I enjoyed it, as it always contained, or, at least, relied upon, a slight bending of the truth. Later I applied for a few more journalistic jobs, including editor of an in-house newsletter for a major corporation. I didn't get it, and, in retrospect, it would likely have been a lifelong, dead-end position.
Instead, I went to work for an up-and-coming California company, and when I thought I understood the business and had established a group of loyal clients, I started my own company. Though the business was very successful, there were times when I questioned my career decisions—mostly because I've come to understand the power of the mass media and wished I'd been there to help prop up its struggling existence. Had I followed my education, it's possible I could have been one of those people who made a difference in our country and world. Then, again, I could have been a Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who suffered the ultimate sanction for saying and writing what was the truth.
As it stands, the media has become less than the watchdog of government it should be. A number of news/opinion organizations sold their birthrights for a mess of Trump's pottage, embracing and perfecting the art of being dedicated apologists for a hopeless, dangerous, narcissistic freak. It's almost humorous how Donald labeled the legitimate news sources as "fake news," while his handful of bought-and-paid-for propaganda organizations became the purveyors of an alternative reality.
Fake news. Trump coined that term; it was his canned retort to media criticism and the accurate reporting of his constantly dishonest and bad behavior. Fake news became the rallying cry of the uneducated, the intellectually lazy and the just-plain-stupid. Meanwhile, right-wing "news" media were used by Trump to deflect responsibility and were quickly snatched-up as a staple media-meal for the ignorant.
Sadly, we must also face the fact that "fake news" is everybody's problem. It isn't just FOX, Epoch Times and AON that are inclined to distort the truth. The best of America's newspapers and news services must also take care to ensure they aren't providing a tainted product. When advertising dollars depend on viewer ratings and hard copy readership, there's a growing temptation to provide the news spins and selective coverage that bring the biggest payday.
The reality—that money may have become part of the selection process for exactly which news gets space and time before the public eyes and ears—is undeniable. In a world which seems to only respect the bottom line, viewership numbers threaten to transform journalism's societal responsibility into pursuit of the almighty dollar. It's something that must be addressed, but how? Do we provide public funding for legitimate news organizations? (Even public funding could have some strings attached, but NPR is an example of how such a system can work for the public good.) Nonprofit, publicly and privately funded media organizations may be the best model to ensure that future Americans will have media they can trust.
Whether it's provided by the good guys or the bad guys, fake news is a major threat to American democracy. It's something that needs to be properly addressed.
The author is a retired businessman, novelist, columnist and former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.