If the true freedom of the press is to decide for itself what to publish and when to publish it, the true responsibility of the press must be to assert and defend that freedom… What the press in America needs is less inhibition, not more restraint.
—Former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker
If you didn’t think we were in uncharted waters when the President of the United States started telling rabid crowds that working journalists were the “enemy of the American people” and purveyors of “fake news,” you had to realize just how dangerously high the stakes have become in our mind-numbing debate over what facts actually are when you saw this:
That’s right, facts are no longer stubborn things. The notion that we’ve entered a post-fact era was quaint six years ago, when Rex Huppke first broached it in his uproarious Chicago Tribune obituary, headlined “Facts, 360 B.C.—A.D. 2012”: “To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet,” he wrote. “Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.”
Ah, for those halcyon days, when we could joke about the death of facts. The truth is, there was no crisis then; half of the country did not believe that, in fact, 81 members of Congress were communists. But now, six years later, facts really are fungible, dependent upon which cable news network you watch, and which outcome you’re committed to before doing your research. Now, if you don’t like a fact, no problem: Just question its provenance. No source is credible. (Robert Mueller is framing the president, in case you haven’t heard).
How bad is it? Spend a night flipping between Fox News and CNN. Not only aren’t you hearing the same set of facts—they’re not even talking about the same stories. There’s a culture war going on and the frontline is our TVs, our phones, and our newspapers. That’s why, on Tuesday, along with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, we’re convening those who are serving in it to take a step back with us for a discussion about how bad it is, how we got here, and what we can all do to stop the onslaught of headline madness so many of us are feeling.
MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning Ashley Parker, and The Inquirer’s Jonathan Tamari all have strong Philly ties, expertly cover national politics, and find themselves in the thick of that thorny place where politics, culture and demographics clash. As moderator, I’ll want to explore with them what it’s like on a day-to-day basis to bring Trump and congressional dysfunction to the world, how they respond to Kremlin-like strategies of misinformation and spin, how they balance the sheer volume of news—every minute another ping!—with so little time to dive in deep.
And I’ll want to know what really was learned from the 2016 election. According to Pulitzer Prize winning author Charlie LeDuff, author of the provocative new book Sh*t Show! The Country’s Collapsing…And The Ratings Are Great, the answer is: Not much. The media, he posits, beginning at the 19:50 mark below, still looks at anyone between the coasts “as an abstract…You’ll go there when Flint is poisoned, but you don’t come later when it’s kinda not poisoned, right? What happened to Flint? Come on back.”
But that’s what I want to explore. If you’ve ever talked back to your TV or shaken your head at a perspective in a newspaper that felt somehow off, here’s your chance to weigh in on how our public conversation gets made. And that’s really the point, after all. It’s up to all of us to make our voices heard in public life. That’s what citizenship is all about.
A few weeks ago, flicking channels, I happened upon All The President’s Men. I was taken by that scene where Jason Robards, playing Ben Bradlee, demands that “Woodstein”—the combo of Woodward and Bernstein—have two corroborating sources for every fact they seek to publish.
That’s when it dawned on me, the awesome nature of our responsibility—yours and mine—as news consumers in this frightening day and age. Technology has rendered all of us our own Woodsteins. Everyone is publisher, reporter, and consumer. So maybe it starts with us. In an age where people actually believed that Hillary Clinton was harboring child predators in a D.C. pizza shop, maybe it’s incumbent upon all of us to do what Bradlee was pushing Woodstein to do: Seek out two sources for every fact before we accept it as true. Come by on Tuesday, and let’s kick it around.
Tuesday, June 12, 6:30 pm-8:30 pm, Penn Law School, Michael A. Fitts Auditorium, Registration and ticket info here.Photo via Flickr