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'Fake News' outlets don't fire reporters who make mistakes

Jun 30, 2017

Yesterday, before President Trump sent out his tweets about the hosts of the Morning Joe program, I was interviewed by a radio host in another city.

He asked something to the effect of whether CNN and other mainstream journalism outlets actually put out fake news? I answered that they never do -- that while respected news outlets do make mistakes, they never invent news to push a political agenda.

What was most dismaying was that the question was asked at all.

For many years, it has been out of bounds to compare anyone to the Nazis. But we live in a different world now, and that world is one where we have a presidency that has adopted a technique made famous by Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda: The Big Lie. Tell the same outrageous lie over and over, and eventually, people will believe it.

Now, I have been a journalist for forty years in a variety of media. I’ve met and worked with some of the top players in the industry. I’ve never known anybody to distort or make up news for political purposes outside of extreme fringe outlets, some of which have been granted credibility they don’t deserve by the current administration.

Conservatives often charge that most reporters are liberal, which is in fact true. But what that means in practice is that they tend, if anything, to be harder on politicians whose positions they might agree with. News executives are also almost excessively concerned with fairness.

We saw this again this week, with a CNN story saying Congress was investigating a Russian investment firm “with ties to Trump officials.”

The network did not broadcast it, but posted it on its website. However, this violated CNN news policy because it was not run past those who check facts and enforce standards at the network. The result was that three top journalists at CNN were instantly fired. One Trump staffer named in the story said, “Classy move. Apology accepted.”

But that wasn’t enough for the President of the United States, who again accused the network of deliberately disseminating “fake news.” Then, yesterday, he sent his most shocking and tasteless tweet yet, one saying Mika Brzezinski had a low IQ and had showed up at a Trump private club with her face bleeding from a face lift and wanted to party with him.

“I said no!” Trump tweeted.

Everyone knows that if the CEO of Ford Motor Company or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had done that, they would have been fired and pressured to seek mental health treatment.  We have a crisis of confidence in this nation, but it shouldn’t be about the news media.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have flaws.  The problem isn’t fake news but junk news, often spelled K-A-R-D-A-S-H-I-A-N-S. CNN spends far too much time broadcasting talking heads yammering and not enough on real stories. 

The members of the news media in this country have stood up to attacks by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy. Today, they are under attack by a man who openly displays contempt for facts. Today, we need journalism more than ever. 

Democracy might really be threatened if the news media of this nation were to be intimated into not doing their jobs. This is no time to either be unfair, or to back down.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.