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Let's reaffirm the pivotal, undeniable role of a #FreePress

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© Copyright 2005 The Des Moines Re

By Gary Stern, Lohud.com, Westchester County

Anyone who has ever questioned a politician with a notebook or tape recorder in hand knows that the relationship between journalist and subject can be adversarial. It must be at times. The journalist wants information to tell one story, while the politician may want to control information to tell a different story.

Both sides get angry, often with good reason. But journalists and public officials tend to develop a grudging mutual respect, since both camps do important, difficult, grimy work that's easy for a skeptical public to second-guess. There is a shared sense, most of the time, that the adversarial nature of the relationship between journalist and politician keeps government in check and protects the democratic process.

If a poorly dressed, socially awkward reporter isn't going to get in the mayor's face, who will?

But now we have a president who doesn't get any of this. Or maybe he does and doesn't care. It's hard to tell.

[post_ads]Through a half-century in the public eye, Donald Trump has carried himself the same way. He says and does what he wants and belittles anyone who gets in his way. It's a style that sort of worked for a rich developer's son who wanted to build bigger stuff than anyone else and get the most attention. He got to fire people on his own TV show.

Now he's the same guy, but in the White House. He's getting 50 years' worth of attention every day from reporters who don't get him. They just ask, over and over, about policies and principles and traditions that are as interesting and relevant to him as what Ivanka is having for lunch. They're off script. So the president says they're all wrong, all the time.

On the surface, Trump's claim that mainstream media organizations purposefully produce "fake news" to hurt him should be too silly to stick. It brings to mind a child calling a playground adversary invisible. Trump's claim that the media are an "enemy of the people" sounds so much like a dictator's stump speech that it can't possibly be taken seriously. The free press is as American as anything. Right?

But Trump's blanket condemnations of an entire profession, a proud industry of thousands of media people from all backgrounds, have taken on a life of their own. Political spinmeisters and ordinary citizens on social media have quickly taken to dismissing journalism as fraudulent when it transmits a message they don't like. People of all political persuasions love to drop the #fakenews tags to condemn anything they disagree with.

The Boston Globe has asked news organizations across the country to speak out at this time in defense of a #FreePress. It's unsettling that this step is necessary in 2018, but journalists are up to the task.

We get it. Belittling the media is easy and effective, like 30-second attack ads the weekend before Election Day. Polls show that Americans don't trust institutions, including the media. Lots of people get their "news" from headlines on social media. News organizations including The Journal News/lohud have cut their staffs and output because of the fast-changing digital economy. In other words, the media are vulnerable.

It's telling that Trump's cartoonish media bashing seems to have freed up other politicians, including his ideological foes, to take broader shots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who prefers staged conference calls to actual press conferences and generally restricts media access to his administration, has taken to bullying reporters. When a reporter from NY1 asked Cuomo a legit question about questionable political donations, Cuomo attacked the reporter's employer. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is repulsed by any negative media coverage — "the news media is pitiful" he wrote in one recently released email — and now blames conservative media for all the troubles in NYC, if not the world.

We can only hope that officials across the Lower Hudson Valley, some of whom have prickly relations with the media, will not decide to take the easy way out by tarring journalists as enemies.
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So now what? Let's use the fake-news hoax as an opportunity to revisit and reaffirm the pivotal, undeniable role of a free press in the U.S. Schools should teach students what journalism is and what journalists do. Colleges and universities can explore the complex, messy role of media in safeguarding democracy. We need politicians of good will to defend the Constitution-given right of reporters to ask tough questions and write controversial articles — especially when they don't like the questions or the articles. Republicans need to do the heavy lifting, since it's their man who is seeking to undermine the media's very role.

We're long past the day of contending that professional journalists are "objective" or the only source of information on the news of the day. But the notion that reporters are enemies of the people is not only absurd, but the opposite of the truth. Most journalists go into the business because they are curious and skeptical of everything. It's this skepticism — a desire to ask questions and sift through documents — that feeds information and context into the public square, so that people can make up their own minds.

If a reporter doesn't wave a notebook in the face of the president or the mayor or school board president, no one else will.

That's not fake. The process of doing journalism is flesh-and-blood real.

Gary Stern is engagement editor. Follow him on Twitter: @garysternNY

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: Let's reaffirm the pivotal, undeniable role of a #FreePress
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