Defending journalism in fact-free world

As the clock wound down on 2019, two things happened related to the state of journalism in this country.

NBC’s Chuck Todd devoted an entire edition of “Meet the Press” to the topic of disinformation in the age of Donald J. Trump, and the Newseum closed its doors for what might have been the last time.

Situated just down the street from the White House, the 11-year-old museum featured a gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs and a display dedicated to journalists who had been killed while doing their jobs.

It included the bent and twisted World Trade Center antenna set against a backdrop of newspaper front pages reporting on the terrorist attack that brought down the New York City landmark.

The Newseum was, in short, a monument to journalism and the First Amendment.

In explaining its decision to close the museum, the Freedom Forum said it could no longer sustain the expense. Perhaps the facility had been overly ambitious. Too big, too expensive. A $25 ticket in a city filled with free attractions.

Its demise, though, came at a time when its message could not have been more needed.

On that segment of “Meet the Press,” Todd spoke to Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, and Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post. He mentioned a recent CBS poll asking where Americans turn for information they can trust. More than 90 percent of Trump supporters cited the president himself.

“Well, that’s true,” Baron said, “and I think that’s the way the president would like to have it. He has described us as the opposition party.

… He wants to disqualify the mainstream media as an arbiter of facts and of truth.”

Baquet said journalists needed to respond to critics and admit when they were wrong.

“What I think we’re going to have to get very aggressive about,” he said, “is to be really transparent, to assume nothing and to make sure people know where we are, how we do our work, to show our work more aggressively.”

He mentioned the Washington Post’s report detailing the lies the government had told under successive administrations concerning the war in Afghanistan. The Post uncovered documents revealing that while officials were painting a rosy picture, the reality of the long-running conflict was more bleak.

Journalists didn’t just publish the story, Baquet said, but they also posted the supporting documents on the newspaper’s website.

“They put them online so that I could read them, readers could read them and could see that it wasn’t just three reporters or, I guess, in this case one reporter sitting in a room making stuff up,” he said.

The job of journalists, Baquet said, is to sort fact from fiction “and to make sure that people trust us and understand that’s our job.”

Todd wanted to know how the news media could go about making that argument.

“Do we need to start campaigning around the country?” he asked. “To say, ‘No, no, no. Here’s how the facts work. Here’s, here’s what reporting is. Here’s what journalists are.’” It wouldn’t be the first time. Thirty years ago, the Society of Professional Journalists joined with the Advertising Council in putting together a campaign celebrating the role of a free press. Timed to coincide with the bicentennial of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the campaign was called Project Watchdog, and it featured ads showing examples of stories that pointed out government waste and violations of the public trust.

“If the press didn’t tell us,” the campaign asked, “who would?”

It might be time for a new campaign.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to [email protected].