Bob Bestler

‘Fake news’: Why the White House’s assault on journalists is bad for our country

When I was about to graduate from the University of Minnesota, I was having trouble getting a newspaper job.

I had already been rejected for a summer internship, something about a chip on my shoulder, you see.

Meanwhile, the recruiter for my favorite newspaper, The Minneapolis Tribune, was not interested in someone with no, absolutely no, newspaper experience. The fact that I had to make enough to support a family did not impress.

My search for a newspaper job had gotten so bleak that I was on the verge of accepting an offer from the Hennepin County (Minneapolis) public information office. It’s called a PR job and I would have been awful at it. I’ve never been very good at spin.

I happened to mention the PR offer to my journalism advisor and he just looked at me, shook his head and said, as he walked away, “You belong in newspapers.”

That’s all I needed. I immediately said no to Hennepin County and within days I received an invitation to visit The Forum newspaper in Fargo, N.D., which mercifully hired me.

That was 50 years ago next month and here I am - still a newspaper guy, albeit a much abbreviated one.

I’ve always considered journalism among the most noble professions. And while it may sound sappy, I’ve always considered newspapers as a key to a free and democratic society. I believe in its role as the Fourth Estate.

So it’s been a little hard to listen to incendiary words, spoken by powerful people, about fake news and enemies of the people.

On Thursday, newspapers from Maine to California answered the call from the Boston Globe and published editorials extolling a free press and the importance of local newspapers. (Yes, Virginia, they colluded.)

It was an unabashed response to the Trump White House and The New York Times was one of the 300 or so that heeded the call with words reflective of most:

“Criticizing the media - for underplaying or overplaying stories, for getting something wrong - is entirely right. News reporters and editors are human and make mistakes. Correcting them is core to our job.

“But insisting that truths you don’t like are ‘fake news’ is dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy. And calling journalists enemies of the people is dangerous, period.”

The Times raised the oft-quoted words of Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a minute to prefer the latter.”

It’s a great quote, the kind that keeps my spirits buoyed while my profession is under attack. Here’s a couple more:

“A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom, a press will never by anything but bad.” - French philosopher Albert Camus.

“News is what someone somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” - British newspaper publisher Lord Northcliff.

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