News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Fake news by any other name is lies

Fergus Falls, near the Dakota borders
The town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, is recovering from a bad case of journalistic malpractice.  At the time of Trump's inauguration, the German magazine Der Spiegel dispatched a star reporter to go to the U.S. heartland and do a story on the rural Americans who supported Trump.  He picked Fergus Falls as his focal point and did a story that was published in March 2017.  The story was defamatory about the town, and nearly everything in it was made up.  Some community members took up the task of setting the facts straight and published a detailed fact check.  The reporter was fired.

The incident illustrates what happens when a reporter abandons the essential rules of professional journalism and uses a mass medium to advance a viewpoint rather than carefully report the facts.  Fortunately, the same freedom of the press that makes it possible for a reporter to publish false defamations  enabled two citizens of Fergus Falls to publish a corrective that counteracted the misinformation.  In doing so they also took a major action in bolstering the integrity of the press.  But the lies reported as facts decay the public trust in journalistic reports and disorient the ability to discern facts.

Donald Trump constantly accuses the media of fake news.  A long-time editor who has covered Trump's biography over the years has said part of that comes from Trump's assumption that all enterprises are as fraudulent as his.  He is incapable of understanding human enterprises based upon truth or why honesty must be the foundation of any beneficent human endeavor.  Lies are a lethal cancer to human society.  Trump's infantile mind is so ego-bound that he can't see any point to human good let alone grasp what contributes to it.

Journalism is the nervous system of democracy.  It alerts the people to when the democratic processes go awry.  Just as the human body sends no constant signals when matters are going well, journalism does not keep an outpouring of "good news."  But when the body malfunctions, it lets us know.  That's why a prominent aspect of journalism is bad news; it is letting us know when something in the democracy is not working right.  When a journalist sends a false alarm, it has a very disruptive and destructive effect on democratic life.  It disorients us as to what is true and what is not.

Unfortunately, there are journalists who send false alarm signals.  I worked with one.  She was a journalist who spent 30 days in jail for contempt of court when she refused to reveal the source of a court document on which she based a story about bribery in a Colorado court system.  She gained fame throughout the nation, and was alleged to have made the cover of Life magazine.  (I have searched the Life archives and could find no such issue.)  Shortly after serving her sentence, she came to a newspaper in my community for which I once worked in the sports department.  She left that paper and worked as a features writer for my home town paper and was working there when I got a job as its farm and business editor.  I and some other of her fellow journalists noted some problems with the accuracy and veracity of her work.

A notable occasion was when she wrote a story that a gambling syndicate  was operating in our rural areas and sponsoring cock and dog fights where heavy betting took place.  She took a picture of a farm at which cars were parked in a field and at the side of the nearby road.  She claimed in the story that she was not allowed admittance to the barn where the events were taking place but interviewed people coming and going who told her what was going on.  She did not, however, identify where the farm was and the photograph that she used to illustrate her story was of the cars parked in the foreground with farm buildings showing in the background.  

One of the cars in the picture was a white Dodge station wagon with a discernible license plate.  It was the company car assigned to me.  I pointed the photo out to the editor's secretary whose job it was to coordinate the use of cars.  When I wasn't out traveling around and would be in the office not using the car,  I turned the keys in to her so that other reporters or photographers could use it for their assignments.  We referred to the company vehicles by the last two numbers of their license plates.  My assigned car was 67.  So, there was number 67 shown being parked at a farm one Saturday afternoon where the story said people gathered to bet on cock fights and dog fights.  

I was at this farm doing a story which ran in the farm section the day after the story about illegal animal fights and gambling ran.  I was covering a 4-H event.  The farm belonged to a family very active in 4-H work.  They were hosting a workshop at which specialists from the university college of agriculture and extension service were instructing kids on handling and grooming farm animals they would be showing at county fairs and 4-H shows over the summer.  It was a huge event to which the kids hauled their project animals and were provided a barbecue picnic by 4-H sponsors.

The editor's secretary and I pondered how the feature writer came up with the animal-fighting and gambling story.  We were left pondering, but the secretary, of course, pointed out the conflicts to the editor.

He was confronted with a problem.  The reporter who had been jailed for refusing to reveal a source brought attention to the papers at which she worked.  They could claim they had a "star" on their staff.  But if that "star" was found to make stories up, the publicity could be very damaging to the paper.  If the family who hosted the 4-H workshop recognized that a photo of their farm was used to show the site of a gambling racket, they could sue the paper, which could cost money, and. worse, could damage the reputation of the newspaper.  The editor realized that if a correction were published in the newspaper, it would call attention to the matter.  He chose the option of hoping that the gambling story would soon be forgotten and the problem would wither away in the memory of the readership.

The paper continued to promote and support the feature writer.  She was one of the reasons I left journalism.  Other editors and reporters, including me, were dismayed that we worked hard to dig out and verify facts and strove to be accurate and reliable, and created the journalistic platform on which the feature writer could perform her fraudulent act.  At one point, seven of we younger reporters and editors took out an ad in Editor and Publisher, the professional journal, to advertise that we were available for jobs.  Most of them found other jobs.  I took advantage of the GI Bill and went to graduate school.  

I ended up teaching English and journalism.  At a conference for journalists, I met an editor who worked in Colorado and knew the feature editor when she worked there.  He said that despite the fame she earned for refusing to reveal her source, other journalists who worked with her wondered if she had a source.  She did not have a good reputation among other journalists, and left Colorado shortly after she served her 30 days in jail.  He pointed out that the governor and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to revoke her sentence, and her job history was one of moving from a large newspaper to increasingly smaller ones.  She had gained fame for standing up for a principle of journalism, but her actual work did not adhere to the principles of truth, accuracy, and integrity.  Her colleague from Colorado said that while the woman was lauded for her courage in protecting an alleged source, nobody else in journalism had the courage to point out that she was a damned liar.  And that included the paper I worked for.

It is noteworthy that the two people who took responsibility to correct the facts in the Der Spiegel article about Fergus Falls are not journalists, but people who care about the damage that lies do to the community and the people around them.  The biggest source of lies pervading the media currently is Donald Trump, and the media soft-pedals his lies by terming them "misleading" or "without foundation."  We've reached a point where the nation is divided between his supporters who deny and want  to believe the lies of Trump and those who realize that these people are the vectors of a disease that is deteriorating all the benefits of a democracy.  

Those folks in Fergus Falls have the courage and the intelligence to call a lie a lie and show why it is a lie.  That is what real news is.

1 comment:

John Silas said...

I remember this incident in Colorado. I didn't realize she ended up at your newspaper. It seems that the publishers protected her more than the integrity of the news.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States