It may have passed without your notice, but we marked World Press Freedom Day on Thursday. Across the globe, journalists and a number of world leaders celebrated the historic and important role that a free press plays in our lives.
“A free press builds stronger and healthier societies,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter. “Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we celebrate the important work journalists do to promote and protect democracy — and also remember those who have lost their lives in the pursuit of the truth.”
So far this year, through May 1, that toll worldwide is 36 journalists killed while engaged in their profession. Some died as collateral damage in war zones; others were specifically targeted for what they were. Ten died in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan last Monday.
Closer to home, while journalists’ lives may not be in danger, their livelihoods are. A dangerous strain of disbelief, intentional mischief and ill-intended undermining are all working to weaken the free press that this nation’s founders enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Virtually every oath that must be sworn by someone for office or occupation in this country requires that person to protect and defend the Constitution. It does not rank that protection and defense in any priority but rather encompasses the whole Constitution, regardless of how one personally feels about any specific part of it.
Let’s be clear here: Journalists have never sought love and admiration from the public. This can be a lonely and isolating profession. Ethics and personal boundaries are taken seriously, and that sometimes leads to a curtailed life.
Journalists seek the truth, which can be an inconvenient thing sometimes for those on the wrong end of that truth. The world is full of obfuscation, shade and spin, and journalists possess the ability to cut through that and give the public an account different from an “official” version.
So while journalists willingly suffer the proverbial slings and arrows — and sometimes real ones — what we growingly cannot accept is this insidious denial of truth that festers out there these days.
This black stain on reality goes by the term “fake news.” President Trump has taken credit for creating this phrase, but it actually predates his election and stems from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg responding to reports of made-up news content on the social media platform. That story on Facebook about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign? Fake.
Which is not to say the president hasn’t tried to take credit for coining the “fake news” expression. Last fall, in a TV interview, he said, “The media is really, the word — one of the greatest of all terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake.’ I guess other people have used it, perhaps, over the years but I’ve never noticed it.”
Since then, “fake news” has grown to become an expression of content that one generally finds unfavorable. It has become weaponized to cast doubt on anything someone doesn’t like, thereby casting doubt on news that might, in reality, be air-tight factually.
We see this even here with stories The Pilot posts online. Whether it’s stories about new developments going up, people running for office or legal disputes, invariably someone is bound to interject a “fake news” in the comment section.
In this campaign season, I’ve seen other candidates make statements in mailings about their opponents that are just outright false. The truth lies bleeding by the side of the road.
To those deniers and would-be shade throwers, you are welcome to your own opinions but not your own facts. You cannot just say “fake news,” regardless of its relationship to the truth, and expect it to go unchallenged.
The work of a free press is to serve as a check on those in power. Unfettered by government interference and control, the free press is a vital outlet offering truth, honesty, context and perspective to society. Those who seek to undermine its work seek to undermine society itself. That’s the way this nation’s founders saw it.
This year’s theme for World Press Freedom Day was “Read More. Listen More. Understand More.” People are dying in the pursuit of protecting and defending — and telling — the truth. Others are locked up for doing their job, while others face harassment daily.
So read more. Listen more. Understand more. Appreciate it, while you still can.