Joe’s Journal

‘Fake news?’

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 7:45am

My TV set and my “smarter than me” phone seem obsessed with references to “fake news.”

They both feature posts of talking heads telling us: “Don’t believe this. Don’t believe that,” as they promote messages from political office holders, who don’t like this, or that news story.

Surprise, dear reader, our political office holders sometimes do things that get them in hot water.

Surprise, again, sometimes a reporter finds out about the incident and pens a story. After his/her editor vets the report, it goes into the newspaper, or maybe on the evening news. And it triggers a ruckus.

The political office holder is quick to label the report as “Fake news. Don’t believe it,” he/she says trying to deflect the criticism.

“It is just those evil, sniveling, backbiting reporters who are just out to get me. You, good people, know better than to believe what you read in the papers or on TV,” they would say.

After spending some 50-plus years in the news racket, I think I have some perspective to add to the discussion.

You have to understand that no public official likes the press. They suck up to, or try to bully, reporters, editors, and publishers because they want “good press.”

The other side of that equation is that they are afraid of the press because they can’t control it.

Even if they are good, solid officials, they know that a mistake could get them in hot water.

One wise official put it this way. “No one wants to be called a dumb a__ on the front page of the paper.”

Why did our founding fathers enshrine the concept of a free press in our Constitution?

They believed the concept of an informed public was a vital key to democracy.

Linda A. Klein, the president of the American Bar Association, put it this way:

“Thomas Jefferson understood that a vibrant and free press is critical to sustaining the rule of law. Along with free speech, a free press is indispensable for people to be informed and to participate in a democracy. On these points, lawyers and journalists are united.

“The transparency that journalism brings to events makes government work better, decreases the risk of corruption and ultimately makes our nation safer. Lawyers often use information uncovered by journalists to prosecute wrongdoing, to hold officials accountable, and to rectify injustices.”

Not all early officials agreed with Jefferson and Klein. By the time John Adams was president, Congress had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which banned any “false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the President. It also made it illegal to oppose any measure or measures of the government.

All told, the federal courts convicted 26 journalists. Surprise, they all had criticized President Adams, and their writings helped elect his rival, Thomas Jefferson.

Officials learned our nation seems to like the idea of questioning, or even opposing, our elected officials. We still do.

As America lurched towards the terrible Civil War, editors crusaded for causes, such as abolition. Sometimes, their editorials triggered reactions. Some of them were violent.

Here in Maine, Colby College presents an annual award to newspaper professionals to honor the memory of editor Elijah Parish Lovejoy.

On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Illinois, Lovejoy, an abolitionist, lost his life when a pro-slavery mob set fire to his office.

Throughout our nation’s history, journalists have written bad news stories about wars, scandal, tragedy, disease, and disaster. We have also written good news about victory, rescues, cures that defeated dread diseases, and happy neighbors.

In our little corner of the world, my favorite newspapers, The Boothbay Register and The Wiscasset Newspaper, and our sister website, The Pen Bay Pilot, carry on that proud tradition of independent local journalism.

We provide a dependable place for you to find the latest information about local police, town government, our schools, and our communities. We also chronicle weddings, births, deaths, graduations, lodge events, sports, and politics.

This winter, we have covered key topics, including plans to redevelop the east side of Boothbay Harbor, and efforts of school officials coping with aging buildings and shrinking enrollment. We proudly follow our school sports teams, especially our state champions, the Boothbay Region Seahawks girls basketball team.

I am not going to try to tell you we don’t make mistakes. Sure we do, and we try to correct them as soon as possible.

But, I am going to tell you that I get more than a bit annoyed when the big shots in Washington and Augusta talk about “fake news.”

I know there are thousands of journalists who work hard each day to get the story right.

And, I know that we write the stories for you – our readers – not to please some office holder.