What if Sam Adams, John Hancock and the other colonists living in and around Lexington and Concord had thought that Paul Revere was spreading fake news on the 18th of April in ’75?
That was the night Revere rode through the countryside, shouting that the British were coming, as indeed, 700 British regulars advanced toward the rebels. What happened next was different from the richly imagined version of history in Longfellow’s poem, but Revere did spread the news. And the citizens of Massachusetts believed him. And they believed the coverage of subsequent battles in the Boston Gazette.
What if Americans, fixed to their radios, hadn’t believed FDR’s shocking announcement on Dec. 7, 1941, that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor? He said, “It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.”
Roosevelt declared war, thereby telling Americans that they would soon be sending their sons and daughters overseas to fight and to support the war effort. A few days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, and the great ship of state moved into battle mode.
People learned about FDR’s proclamations through the press and followed the progress of the war through our newspapers and the president’s radio addresses. What if a majority of Americans had suspected the news was unreliable? What if people had suspected that FDR might be leading the country into war for self-serving reasons, to get re-elected or to enrich himself and his family?
I think, too, of the immense sacrifice that was asked of the British people by Winston Churchill during the Blitz. He fixed their courage to a sticking point with the sheer power of his moral authority and his magnificent words. What if they hadn’t trusted or believed in him? What if a group within England had refused to abide by the draconian wartime rationing and restrictions because Churchill had been proven a liar or a fool? The citizens of London followed him through hell because they trusted him with their lives.
We are not similarly blessed. There are two parts to this problem of veracity and authenticity in the public arena. One is that our president is not worthy of our trust. He suggested from his first day in office that his version of the truth, although it might be verifiably false (like the number of spectators at his inauguration), was the truth. That makes it impossible for thinking people to follow his directives or believe in his leadership. The second part is that the president uses the term “fake news” to delegitimize reporters and news outlets that challenge him.
A society needs both a president who tells the truth and a free press that holds pubic officials to account.
We have a fair and free press that, from right to left and left to right, reports the news and expresses a broad spectrum of views. Viewers and readers can read and tune in, inform themselves and process the different points of view. The blight that has infected journalism is the president’s accusation of “fake news” for any reporting that questions him or his policies. The idea that the reliable news outlets are disseminating “fake” information undermines the basic constitutional guarantee of a free press.
I know, because since Trump came into office, a fair number of readers have slung the “fake news” epithet my way when they don’t agree with something I write. Yet it is the press that has exposed the ongoing chaos in the Trump administration, the self-serving mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing tragedy of a man ill fit and ill-equipped to be president.
If Donald Trump shouted that the British were coming, if he asked us to endure a blitz, if he declared war on another country, there would be a crisis of faith in his leadership. At the end of the day, I suspect we would need our free press to help us decide how to move forward as a country. And how would that go if millions of Americans had been encouraged by the president to perceive widely respected news sources as “fake”?
Copyright 2020 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.