Attacks on media are old news. They go back to Thomas Jefferson, who was arguably the most passionate freedom of the press champion among the Founders. Yet, even Jefferson criticized newspapers when they were used against him by his enemies. History is replete with examples. Abraham Lincoln was savaged by both Southern and Northern newspapers before and during the Civil War. He had little good to say about journalists. When CBS's Walter Cronkite turned against the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson famously said he'd lost middle America. He had. Richard Nixon's attempts to intimidate the press during the Pentagon Papers episode and the Watergate crisis are legendary.
But there are differences between then and now. The current occupant of the White House and his allies in Congress and in Republican-dominated states are attacking "mainstream media" with the knee-jerk mantra, "fake news." Truth is the victim. Given the angst among North Dakota Republicans about challenging popular Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, it's worth noting that fake news strategy is beginning to pollute North Dakota politics. A campaign to destroy the credibility of a constitutionally mandated institution-the free press-is an assault on a foundational element of the republic. When attacks on media become pervasive and ubiquitous-when they are enabled by officials in the highest levels of government-the erosion of trust threatens democratic values. A healthy democracy requires an informed electorate. If the people believe that traditional news reporting and commentary are "fake news," then the commonality of purpose that binds a nation together is at risk.
LBJ and Nixon were furious with the media, but they did not dismiss reporting that put them in a bad light as fake news. Indeed, for most presidents, the news was anything but fake. It was real and truthful. It changed the course of their presidencies. All presidents criticized the press, but they did not try to systematically smother a fundamental constitutional mandate with a drumbeat of fake news accusations. Until now.
The phony fake news rejoinder has wriggled from the slime of the national stage into state politics. A few North Dakota Republicans now embrace a lie-dependent perversion of political discourse. Others scurry into the deep weeds when the subject is broached.
The press is responding. Great newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, break relevant news every day. CNN, NBC and the PBS News Hour raise the bar with top-tier reporting. That being said, the craft of reporting news is imperfect. Human beings err. Time-tested legal and ethical mechanisms in journalism are designed to right press wrongs. It is the best way to ensure fairness and accuracy. Fake news practitioners aim to legitimize mendacity.
Free press is not an academic construct. It is not a cliche. It is an essential cog in the cranky machinery of governance. Officially condoned media mugging is, in effect, an attack on a free people. When candidates come calling, ask them where they stand on the fake news malignancy. Challenge them if they've used the phrase to ambush the free press. If "fake news" is their fallback, write 'em off as spineless liars.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years as The Forum’s editorial page editor. He continues to write a Sunday column. Contact him at email@example.com or (701) 241-5521.