All about in­tent

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES -

We’re hear­ing a lot to­day about “fake news.” Some con­tend Pres­i­dent Trump is largely re­spon­si­ble be­cause he ap­plies the term for much crit­i­cism as loosely as many of the left have ac­cused those who dis­agree with them or poli­cies of the for­mer pres­i­dent of racism.

Some of Pres­i­dent Trump’s be­liefs are over­re­ac­tion to valid crit­i­cisms (he sets him­self up for much of it). Yet our prob­lem with fake news and cred­i­bil­ity run much deeper, into in­ten­tional gross omis­sions and “al­ter­na­tive facts.”

Fake news cer­tainly doesn’t have to be an en­tirely false news story. A rel­e­vant fact or two in­ten­tion­ally shaped or omit­ted changes the in­tegrity of a news story, which makes it wrong, not faked. Ever watch three cable chan­nels cover the same event then choose and use much dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion and (al­ter­na­tive) facts? I sure have.

The of­fi­cial def­i­ni­tion I read of the term “fake” said, “hav­ing a false or mis­lead­ing ap­pear­ance, not au­then­tic or gen­uine.” That be­ing the case, how much mis­lead­ing or in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion is nec­es­sary to be la­beled fake? Have we de­gen­er­ated to where sim­ply dis­agree­ing with a point or story makes it fake in our minds?

I know news can be faked be­cause I ex­pe­ri­enced its ug­li­ness in 1980 while re­port­ing for the Chicago Sun-Times. Af­ter in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Illi­nois Lot­tery, a fel­low re­porter and I were sur­prised to find it was house­wives, rather than the poor, who pur­chased the most tick­ets.

So we wrote ex­actly what the doc­u­mented facts re­vealed. Later, an irate ed­i­tor called me at home to say he dis­agreed with our find­ings and was ar­bi­trar­ily chang­ing the top of our story to read the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect and pre­dictable line. The lot­tery “was rap­ing the poor of what lit­tle money they had along with their dig­nity.”

I ar­gued with­out suc­cess that it wasn’t what the facts showed. Then I asked to re­move my name from the se­ries, which they obliged. Af­ter leav­ing the pa­per, I learned the se­ries had re­ceived an award for in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing.

An in­com­plete news story where a con­sci­en­tious re­porter is shar­ing the truth as he or she dis­cov­ers it un­der dead­line pres­sures can’t be hon­estly called fake. Yet the re­porter does have an obli­ga­tion to fol­low up as ad­di­tional facts be­come ap­par­ent and to cor­rect mis­takes.

I can’t over­state the haz­ards to so­ci­ety when we be­gin to ca­su­ally la­bel most of what we read see or hear as fake sim­ply be­cause it doesn’t fit our world­view. Like wrongly calling honor­able Amer­i­cans with dif­fer­ing views racists, that’s a sure-fire recipe for shred­ding the fab­ric of our na­tional bond.

I’m also not pre­pared to say such cal­cu­lated di­vi­sive­ness isn’t the agenda of politi­cians who use will­ing shame­less me­dia col­lab­o­ra­tors to in­ten­tion­ally put their party’s in­ter­ests ahead of truth and the over­all wel­fare of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

It’s equally clear that prop­erly defin­ing fake news is a sub­jec­tive mat­ter.

I asked our morn­ing cof­fee group at the Town House Cafe: “What con­sti­tutes fake news?”

One said he con­sid­ers the me­dia’s in­ten­tional in­nu­en­dos, omis­sions, story place­ment, fo­cus, head­lines and word­ing of sto­ries to be el­i­gi­ble for con­sid­er­a­tion as fake while pro­fess­ing to re­port truths.

An­other cited any in­ten­tion­ally fabri­cated story, es­pe­cially those meant to fa­vor a cer­tain po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy or party and shape pub­lic opin­ion.

“The op­er­a­tive word in this ques­tion is in­ten­tion­ally,” added an­other. “If your in­ten­tion is any­thing other than to re­port the news fairly and ob­jec­tively, you’re re­port­ing fake news.”

When it comes to shap­ing how some “news” is be­ing de­liv­ered on the na­tional scene, MSNBC an­chor Mika Brzezin­ski the other day con­firmed her in­tent. Speak­ing of her con­cern that Pres­i­dent Trump could “un­der­mine the mes­sag­ing” enough to “con­trol ex­actly what peo­ple think. And that, that is our job,” she con­cluded. A smidgen of truth­ful com­men­tary.

There’s ob­vi­ously no cred­i­bil­ity in sup­posed news that is con­trolled or faked. Last week I wrote about the state­ment of core val­ues writ­ten by the news­pa­per’s pub­lisher, Wal­ter Huss­man Jr., and pub­lished daily on Page 2.

Huss­man’s mes­sage is in­tro­duced by a rel­e­vant com­ment from the late New York Times pub­lisher Adolph Ochs, who said: “To give the news im­par­tially, with­out fear or fa­vor.”

That was a pe­riod in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism when I be­lieve most bona fide news­pa­per folk were largely fo­cused on au­then­tic re­port­ing and watch­dog­ging as the First Amend­ment ex­pects and en­ables. Un­til the past 40 years, I’d say most pa­pers were in­de­pen­dently owned by those who be­lieved in the sa­cred re­spon­si­bil­ity at the heart of Och’s mes­sage.

Since then, with lost com­pe­ti­tions, merg­ers and cor­po­rate takeovers, those fam­ily-owned pa­pers of deeply com­mit­ted and prin­ci­pled jour­nal­ists the likes of say, Hod­ding Carter and Wil­liam Allen White, have dis­ap­peared, along with the ad­mirable and coura­geous spir­its they re­flected.

Such pub­lish­ers and ed­i­tors for the most part been re­placed (this pa­per thank­fully ex­cluded) in re­cent decades with lawyers and cor­po­rate busi­ness-man­ager types at the top who clearly lack suf­fi­cient ded­i­ca­tion to or un­der­stand­ing of their sa­cred re­spon­si­bil­ity to our craft or First Amend­ment jour­nal­ism.

Mike Master­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette. Email him at mmas­ter­son@arkansason­line.com.

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