As I write this article, I want you to know I’m not affiliated in any way with the media. I have been a police chief in four major cities and, in this capacity, my police department and I were often the focus of media attention. For over 20 years, I was consistently questioned by the press regarding officer-involved shootings, police officer misconduct and major crime problems.
During these years, I experienced frustrating times with reporters, but I never experienced what is currently being called “Fake News.” Probing for answers, the questions from reporters were periodically frustrating, but I never felt that reporters were trying to be dishonest or biased. Hard questions were designed to flush out the truth.
Consistently calling America’s major news outlets “Fake News” and “liberal” has been effective. Beginning with conservative talk radio and sustained by Fox News, repeatedly calling the mainstream media liberal has crystalized a belief in a substantial number of American’s that the major newspapers and national television channels are liberal.
This is an oblique attack on the First Amendment, and this not so subtle attack, has been effective. From calling the mainstream media the “Drive-by news” and labeling the major new outlets as liberal has worked.
The lack of an effective defense for America’s historic media sources has given this false narrative a strong foothold in our national mindset. It has facilitated the defense of conservative positions and conservative missteps. I know this broad bush label of liberal is not true in a majority of our major news outlets, but repeatedly stating that the media is liberal and calling their reporting “Fake News” has consequently formed an opinion that the major news sources are not truthful.
From journalism classes at Columbia University and Northwestern University, in the newsrooms from The Los Angeles Times to The New York Times, to college textbooks and university lectures, across the United States, the principle reporting values in journalism are honesty, integrity and truthfulness. These long-held values are ingrained in reporters, editors, news directors and publishers.
Violating these values is more than just unethical. These values have legal standing. The word “libel” is intentionally writing something you know to be false, and “slander” is saying something you know to be untrue. False reporting or “fake news” has legal consequences. News organizations can and are sued for reporting false information.
Read any contemporary textbook on journalism or communication and you will find the values of honesty, integrity and truthfulness fully explained as the important core values of journalism in America. These values are important to those responsible for reporting the news.
From experience, I know that if a bad or false idea is repetitively stated, there are those who will accept it as true. Repeatedly stating false information has consequences. Historically false statements are the building blocks of racism. Repeating false statements, by those in position of authority, increases the credibility of a lie.
Repetition is an ingrained learning tool. Repeating the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag builds patriotism. Repeating religious doctrine builds faith. But can you see the power of repeating an idea that is false has the same impact on individual belief? Repeating a false statement can destroy a value effectively just as repeating a highly respected value can create patriotism or faith.
The conservative movement, through talk radio and Fox News, has made the term “Fake News” viable. This tactic has hurt the credibility of the mainstream media, and in the process, has hurt the First Amendment’s protection of a free press.
When people only hear the ideas that support their own thinking, it creates a vacuum. This vacuum makes room for a long list of conspiracy theories and, in some people, the desire to attack those that are the subject of the false arguments.
From the Charlottesville white nationalist driving a car into people, to the person who attacked and killed Hispanic people in El Paso, “fake news rhetoric” has consequences and is damaging the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights.
All of us, as Americans, need to widen our knowledge and pay attention to what this attack on the First Amendment has created.
Robert C. Wadman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the Criminal Justice Department at Weber State University, Ogden.