2020: The year to support, defend – and trust – our free press

2020 resolution

It is more important than ever to move past the past decade of disruption and all-too-common disingenuous purveyors of information and to get on with the business of recognizing and supporting news sources we can identify.

How about a new New Year’s resolution: To more appreciate a free press, in whatever brand, flavor or medium you prefer.

In that spirit, let’s start using a new term: Identifiable News Media. Time to let go of the vanilla-flavored “mainstream media” and drop the pejorative “lame stream” tag — its use as timely political snark ran out some time ago.

While we’re at it, let’s drop the identifier “new media” as not having any real meaning in a world where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their kin are now considered established sources of news and information and many, if not most, newspapers are just paper wrappers around web-based news operations.

So, back to that free press resolution. In 2020, in order to defend and support that core freedom, we will need to confront in real ways the storm of disinformation, news manipulation and dwindling ranks of journalism that’s been building for nearly a decade.

We finally have to deal in real ways with that storm: Surreptitiously altered videos designed to disrupt and mislead could well damage the 2020 election process. Political spin and vacuous talking heads on cable TV masquerading as news reporterss will be of little value in real debate over issues like education, health care and the environment.

The milestone mark just reached of having about one-half as many working journalists as barely two decades ago is a true call to action in confronting “news deserts” and simply having enough people on the job to be effective watchdogs on government.

No sooner than the comforting fog of holiday-focused features, movies, music and general hoopla had dissipated, we’re right into the impeachment debate, punctuated by worries over terror attacks and possible war, and warnings about climate change driven home by images of the massive heat wave-drought-wildfire catastrophe spanning the entire Australian continent.

The assassination-missiles exchange of recent days between the U.S. and Iran is just one example of how we depend on a free press — not just government mouthpieces or unknown social media “sources” — to bring us facts.

Within minutes of each breaking development, network news and serious online news outlets let us know of the attack on U.S./Iraqi airbases, that there were few-to-no casualties or serious damage and what top Iranian leaders were telling their nation about the potential for full-scale conflict with the U.S. — including the false claim that 80 U.S. soldiers died in the missile attack.

Contrast the verifiable reports from U.S. networks and online news outlets even as the attacks were under way — some from veteran correspondents in Bagdad and Tehran, with the false reports Buzzfeed.News reported Wednesday were firing around the web at the same time with a false post on Twitter that “early reports say 20 U.S. troops have died.” Photos from years earlier, some from other places as distant as Ukraine, purporting to show the Iranian missile launches. Fake claims in Facebook posts state that “all U.S. facilities in Iraq struck.”

The Buzzfeed report also noted false text messages sent to some Florida residents saying they had been drafted and had to “report to your nearest military branch for immediate departure to Iran.” There also were re-tweeted images appearing to show U.S. sailors on the deck of an aircraft carrier spelling out “Fuck Iran,” when the actual photo showed them spelling out “Ready Now” in an image from a decade or more ago.

A common thread through all this mis-and-disinformation is that the ultimate sources are not easily pinned down. As with the carrier photo, distortions and outright lies take on an online life over time that obscures the creators, leaving only those who pass the fakes along – and even most of them are not readily identified news outlets or individuals

So let’s hear it for those visible news sources — who by virtue of the vagaries of reporting on breaking news and shifting situations may not always get it right the first time, but who are identifiable — we may hold accountable for those reports.

On the Dec. 29 edition of NBC News’s “Meet the Press,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron outlined the challenges to factual reporting — to “truth” in news as well as the value of a free press in responding to that challenge.

“We live in an environment where people are able to spread crazy conspiracy theories and absolute falsehoods and lies … made possible by the internet and social media,” Baron said. “ …. But we still have the responsibility for determining what’s true and what’s false and, in particular, holding our government officials accountable for what they say and telling people whether they’re telling the truth, or they’re not telling the truth. That’s fundamental to the responsibilities that we have as a journalistic institution.”

Yes, critics of The Washington Post and other news operations vary in their views of how well it and others live up to those responsibilities. However, none can deny that the First Amendment protects their right to gather and report the news without government control — and that by being “identifiable” sources, news consumers can exercise their own rights to free speech and free press in assessing the work.

In times of possible war, environmental disasters or other serious news, it is more important than ever to move past the past decade of disruption and all-too-common disingenuous purveyors of information and to get on with the business of recognizing and supporting news sources we can identify and, hopefully, in the short and long run, once again trust.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.

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