It’s a bad time to be a journalist. President Trump keeps talking about fake news, a term he apparently uses to describe anyone and anything that contradicts his views or tweet of the day.
I retired just in time to miss his attacks on the press in general and reporters in particular who have the temerity to ask him questions he doesn’t wish to answer. Some of us must try to explain to our grandchildren — and others who get what passes for news from social media — that they must listen to (or read) at least three different outlets to understand what’s going on.
When I went back to college to get my journalism degree, students were taught some basic rules, which seem to have become irrelevant. Rule one protected one’s employer from libel suits. That was: If you quote an unnamed source on a debatable issue, you must make two phone calls to substantiate its veracity. If you succeed, your publisher (and/or editor) is legally off the hook.
Public figures had difficulty filing a libel suit because they were often quoted, as is our current president, saying something completely false. The difference is that now everyone has seen and heard what was said on TV or on thousands of smart phones.
This past weekend, we all saw and heard Mr. Trump saying at his election rally in Florida that Sweden had just experienced terrorism. He said this to bolster his debatable position on immigration, but where he got that idea is anyone’s guess. Experts from Sweden almost instantly debunked the item. He said he got the misinformation from Fox News. I rest my case.
We currently wonder whether Mr. Trump will act on his announcement that he will rewrite his travel ban, which earned a temporary restraining order from a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He said it will be released this week and that it will exempt green card holders and those with valid visas. While he says such restrictions will make this country safer, experts have firmly denied that. It will actually make us less safe because the Muslim community will be afraid to pass information on suspects to authorities. A valid point.
A word here about my personal experience with immigrants. In the ‘60s, when we had a new ranch and hardly any money, we hired the only help available, undocumented workers from Mexico. They were happy to have a job in a beautiful place and missed their children so they were unfailingly kind to mine. They never took days off because they had nowhere to go and they sent whatever money they could to their families. Once a year, during our downtime, they would take a vacation and go back to Mexico to plant crops and make repairs on their ranches.
Fifty years later, fence lines they built while singing still stand. And they never wasted a thing. Once when I was irrigating a line of poplar trees I had planted along the driveway, I smelled something funny. On looking down amongst the young trees, I discovered they had planted onions there, so as not to waste water.
The only worker we ever had that stole from us had a green card and so was in the country legally. When we had to let him go, he ratted on the Mexicans to immigration authorities prompting the only raid we ever experienced. The Mexican workers escaped into the hills, returning after dark, and that was the end of it.
So, Mr. Trump would like to ban immigrants from mostly Muslim countries and let’s hope he recognizes the judiciary branch of government. He has, of course, called judges who rule against him “so-called judges.”
But back to Mr. Trump’s war on journalism. Robert Reich recently said in Salon.com that if there’s anything tyrants hate it’s “the free press.” Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump wore his disdain for the “disgusting” and “dishonest” media as a badge of honor. At a surreal news conference last week, he told lie after lie, and verbally attacked CNN’s Jim Acosta because his network correctly reported that intelligence officials had warned Trump of rumors that Russia has blackmail information on him.
The president may not need the press, said Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post, but the rest of us do. By holding politicians accountable and uncovering the truths they try to hide, journalists provide a vital bulwark against authoritarianism.
I couldn’t have said it better.