By MOHAMED HAMALUDIN
Those who exploit the people have always feared the power of the press because of its ability to shine a spotlight on corruption, lies and other wrongdoings.
Petty politicians even at the lowest levels of elected government are known to conduct the people’s business one way when reporters are present and another way when they are absent.
But journalism can exert such influence only when the governed have confidence in the integrity of the reporters who write the stories about those who govern.
Therein lies the explanation for the frontal assault by Donald Trump on the press before he became president and even more so now.
Stories unflattering to the politician and those which expose wrongdoings and lies are deemed “fake news” and information is fabricated that can be retailed as “real news.”
There is, of course, no such thing as “fake news.” It is either news – the truth – or it is a lie.
As journalists seek to fend off the attacks from Trump, what is at stake, as an increasing number of commentators are saying, is American democracy itself. The press is not protected by the Constitution and called the “Fourth Estate” of government, after Congress, the Presidency and the Courts, for nothing.
The threat is magnified by the pressures under which the press is having to operate in the age of the Internet, not only in loss of readership but especially in diminishing revenue from advertising – its main source of income – and the consequential shortage of journalists to get the story.
But there is another dimension – that of the growing rift over what can be regarded as news. This is a decades-old debate which is a product of the widening credibility chasm in the nation.
An increasing number of people seem to be not looking for what traditionally is called “objective” information – stories professionally reported, written and edited – that provides them with a background against which they can make informed decisions.
Rather, more and more people seem to have been seeking information that comports with their view of the world, that validates their perspective on life and living, regardless of whether it fits the traditional definition of news.
As a result, the world of journalism has come to be divided into “news that’s for me” and “news for them” and the news that is objectively accurate, such as Planet Earth is round, gets squeezed into a smaller and smaller space.
It is unclear whether the press saw this yawning divide coming. As the “subjective news” peddlers, who do not shy away from propagating falsehoods as fact, have widened their influence over a captive body of information-deprived people, the traditional press has gone about its business the usual way — and has seen its readership continue to decline.
Perhaps that is an inevitable development but it seems that the traditional press could have done more than accumulate Pulitzer Prizes while losing readers. But how can they convince Americans that, contrary to what Trump is peddling, journalism is an honest profession?
One way is to peel back the covers to let people see what goes into a story before it is printed. It is very likely that not many Americans know that journalists are highly skilled and trained professionals whose work is subjected to various levels of scrutiny before it is deemed worthy of printing – from the reporting, the writing, the fact checking, to being examined for possible bias.
It is very likely that many people do not know of the ethical guidelines under which journalists operate that are so rigorous that a reporter risks being fired for merely showing up at a meeting to which he or she has not been assigned to cover, so as to avoid the very appearance of partiality. It is important for people to know this because the Internet allows anyone who can write, even if barely coherently, to publish “news” that is totally made up or is merely disinformation. Hence the massive proliferation of “news” blogs, “news” websites and commentaries that have not even a remote acquaintance with truth, accuracy and objectivity.
Educating Americans on what constitutes the press, what journalism is all about and the importance of a press free from governmental intimidation, is a sure way to counter the lies that masquerade for news and defeat those who are committed to discrediting robust, independent journalism, to kill the messenger because the message – the news — is “bad” and denounce the press as “the enemy of the American people,” as Trump put it recently.