How — I am sometimes asked — can a journalist like me question the ethics of a fellow journalist reporting about the White House? Shouldn’t all reporters and editors stick together?
Well, no. They should stick with the truth.
Consider if the question were turned around. What if we asked: How can a politician question the ethics of a fellow politician? Shouldn’t all politicians stick together?
Obviously, some of them would like to. That would make it easier for them to lie, cheat and steal — what we now call “living in the swamp.”
But fortunately there are some politicians who insist on holding each other accountable; by the same exact token, one hopes there are a sufficient number of journalists who will hold each other accountable when members of their trade do shoddy work — which, in our case, means either getting the facts wrong or intentionally misleading the public about what the facts mean.
In fact, the term “fake news” — popularized to the consternation of the media by President Trump — was first put in wide use hundreds of years ago. Nor is Trump the first president to question the veracity of press reports. No less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, who valued the free press as highly as anyone, nonetheless found many of its practitioners to be wanting in judgment and ethics.
In a letter to John Norvell in 1807, Jefferson wrote: “To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, ‘by restraining it to true facts and sound principles only.’ Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
I doubt many of those who attack the president today would be comfortable calling Jefferson by the same rude names they use against Trump, but you never know. In any event, as I discovered by looking at several hundred references to fake news over the last 200 years at newspaperarchive.com, there is no greater critic of fake news than the legitimate press — which rightfully yearns to distinguish itself from the unethical work of lesser journalists. I found more than 4,000 citations for “fake news” from before 2015 when Donald Trump announced his presidential bid. Throw in the more generic “false news” and you get another 13,000 citations. They range from false reports on various economic markets (possibly intended to manipulate profits) to fake news from the frontier (exaggerating the danger of Indian uprisings) to the rumor spread by the Associated Press in 1895 that President Grover Cleveland had been assassinated at his summer home. About the latter report, the Daily News of Milwaukee wrote, “The poor old Associated Press is again in a peck of trouble. It gets involved in so many fakes that it keeps one busy to follow them.”
Same could be said about the current Associated Press, except there are few editors who have the temerity to call them out for their mistakes, whether intentional or otherwise.
It should be noted that not all of those thousands of citations of “fake news” in the historical archives of newspapers are aimed at the press as the culprit. There can be other sources of false news than newspapers, but a large portion of the references to fake news in the past 200 years or more are cases of journalists defending the reputation of their chosen profession by admonishing those among them who do not live up to the common standards of fairness and truth.
No surprise. The credibility of newspapers and of journalism in general depend on our ability to get the story right in the first place, and to admit our mistakes promptly in the second place. That’s what we stress at the Inter Lake. Our reporters take seriously their responsibility for getting both sides of the story, and for keeping their own opinions out. We aren’t perfect, and when we fall short, we admit it.
Unfortunately, it seems that some big-name journalists today consider themselves and their chosen profession above reproach. When President Trump calls them out for publishing fake news, they merely put their thumbs in their ears and shout back petulantly “NOT FAKE NOT FAKE!” no matter how obvious it is to an objective observer that it was indeed fake.
A prime example of that occurred last Sunday morning when President Trump’s tweet about the Trump Tower meeting held by Don Jr. in 2016 was widely trumpeted as some kind of new (and damning) revelation when actually the president had said the exact same thing (in virtually the same words) a year earlier. Someone was asleep at the switch, but it wasn’t Trump’s tweet manager.
Another tweet by President Trump last weekend also elicited shock and outrage from the usual suspects in the media when he said, “The Fake News [outlets] ... purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous…”
All over the “vast wasteland” (look it up) of cable news, the talking heads either feigned ignorance or just plain showed their ignorance as they claimed that there was no way a newspaper could cause a war. How dare Trump say otherwise?
The only problem is that newspapers and in particular fake news have caused wars, most notably the Spanish-American War, which was sparked in part by the “Yellow Journalism” reporting of the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, especially when the U.S.S. Maine naval ship mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain” became the rallying cry and the newspapers urged the U.S. to war even though the cause of the explosion was never resolved.
The Philadelphia Times, on April 19, 1898, had this to say about the tactics of Hearst and Pulitzer and fake news:
“In periods of great public excitement, and especially when a nation is convulsed by the apprehension of war with all its countless horrors, the public press has an exceptionally responsible duty to perform. It should resolutely print the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“Since the beginning of our severely strained relations with Spain, some of our public journals have done more to degrade American journalism than has ever been done in the same period in the history of our country. The most reckless sensationalism has been adopted and continued from day to day, until the more intelligent portion of the reading public has ceased to respect newspaper publications relating to the war, because of the unparalleled extravagance of the fake news given in some of the leading journals of the country. They have not only brought an ineffaceable stain upon the journalism of the nation, but they have wantonly and maliciously inflamed public sentiment by the most atrocious perversions of the truth.”
That indictment of the New York World and the New York Journal and the other Hearst and Pulitzer papers stands as one of the high-water marks of American journalism. It is so easy for a newspaper to call out the unethical antics of a politician, but much more courageous to challenge one’s own peers to a higher standard. May the spirit of the Philadelphia Times prevail as journalism lives through another period of “reckless sensationalism” and, yes, regrettably, “fake news.”
Frank Miele is managing editor of the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Montana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.