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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Press Is Essential, Whether Presidents Like It or Not

If you want to make journalism better, subscribe to your local paper.

The U.S. has a robust, free, and fair media. No wonder that makes Donald Trump angry.

Trump has such notoriously thin skin that some have taken to calling him Trumplethinskin. His staff says he watches TV and reads the news obsessively, looking for praise for himself.

And we know, in part, exactly what Trump is watching. Why? Because he often tweets about exactly what just appeared on Fox News, right after it airs.

Just to get this straight, the leader of the free world — the most powerful man on the planet, with the entire U.S. intelligence apparatus at his disposal — is getting his information about the world from TV, like the rest of us.

What’s more, he’s often getting it from pundits instead of from unbiased journalists. While fewer of us seem to notice every day now, there’s a difference.

The job of a journalist isn’t to give his or her own opinion. The job of a journalist is to inform readers of the unbiased truth — after it’s been carefully fact-checked.

Each of us has opinions — on immigration, on security, on the climate, and so forth. A good journalist will inform readers of the facts of the issue, who stands on each side of it, what the government policy is, and how they’re carrying out that policy.

The best investigative journalists also discover inconvenient facts that the powerful don’t want the public to know. For a president who only wants positive coverage, this may not seem like a good thing. For the rest of us, it’s vital to our democracy.

Recall Nixon and Watergate. He was brought down by two journalists — Woodward and Bernstein. Did Nixon like those journalists? No. Were they true American patriots helping to safeguard our democracy? Absolutely.

Sometimes journalists mess up. It’s true. I once wrote an article I don’t think I fact checked well enough. It was years ago, long forgotten by everyone else, and it still bothers me.

A journalist’s credibility is all he or she has. Your record of finding and writing the truth is your personal brand. Likewise, a newspaper’s accuracy is its brand. All it takes is a gaffe or two and your readers can’t trust you anymore.

When I’ve been in recent conversations among journalists about how to deal with Trump’s attacks on the media, everyone’s given the same answer: We’ll do our job. We’ll be as professional as possible.

As for Trump’s term “fake news,” Americans should know where that term came from. In the lead up to the election, there really was fake news. A lot of it came from teenagers in Macedonia who made up stories that would get lots of clicks from Americans to generate ad revenue.

Truly fake news stories are dreamed up by people with no desire to inform the public whatsoever. Many are published in obviously bogus outlets online. There’s no comparison between that and even the shoddiest journalism published in mainstream publications.

No matter who’s in power, any American leader attempting to discredit the news media or pressure it into favorable coverage is dangerous. Telling Americans that nothing we read can be believed except for what a single politician and his acolytes say leaves our country open to corruption and other abuses by those at the top.

Whatever its faults, the American mainstream media is excellent in many ways. But if you want to make them even better, there’s a way: Subscribe to your local paper. And believe in good, solid, unbiased reporting as a vital ingredient in a healthy democracy.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. Distributed by