Many of us likely remember what it was like as we waited in the checkout lane at the local grocery store when we were younger. It took forever. We remember that never-ending line, and we know its truth.
Speaking of the truth, that also was the first time most of us saw those crazy, oddly shaped, newspapers right next to all of the good candy and gum. Their headlines were fantastic and as soon as we mentioned we should get one, we’d be told that none of it was real. “That’s fake news,” Mom would say.
Then we’d go to school and be taught the history of country at war. World War II was always so hard to understand because there is no way a nation would do things that were that evil. How could so many people be talked into thinking that was okay?
Teachers explained how it happened using one word, “propaganda.” What’s that? “It’s fake news,” we’d be told in class. “Citizens were told things that weren’t true, that—because of the times and their own hardships—they wanted to believe.” Seemed like crazy talk to us back in the fifth grade.
For most people of a certain age, these are the first examples we remember of being told that something less than honest was being sold as the truth. This is when most of us began to understand what “fake news” really was. Today, we hear the phrase all the time, but it’s oddly been turned into something that seems charged and political, whether what is being reported is factual or not.
As the Spokesman-Review editor, I get asked to speak to a lot of groups. There is always one question asked at every presentation: “How do you feel about fake news?” That’s easy: I hate it. It goes against everything our newspaper’s journalists believe in and everything our newsroom stands for. “No, that’s not what I mean. What do you think about there being so much fake news now?” This is when I get to explain what local newspapers really do and what we all know are truthful things.
When we print a story about a road closing on Monday for construction, that’s true. When we say the previous day’s high temperature was 22 degrees and that it snowed 2.7 inches out at the airport, we all know it’s true…even if we don’t want either to be true. If we run a story that says Gonzaga scored more than 100 points and beat Santa Clara by 50 points, we know that’s true.
People generally like this answer. More importantly, they agree with it. Then … “Well, what about what the president said and about the media being fake?”
There’s a long history of U.S. presidents hating the media.
Nixon couldn’t stand the Washington Post and swore he wasn’t a crook. The Obama White House was called “the least transparent and the most antagonistic toward the media since the Nixon administration” by a significant Southern California newspaper. But a president trying to discredit the media isn’t all that new.
“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” That was Thomas Jefferson in 1807. Well, except that Jefferson also understood more than most the role journalism played in a well-informed democracy. “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 moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson wrote.
Democracy isn’t easy. It takes work by “we the people.”
After a while, it became obvious to the editors at this newspaper that half of our readers didn’t trust stories out of the nation’s capital. We did two things. We began inviting people to our news meetings so they could hear what we talked about as we built our newspaper, and probably more impactful, what we didn’t talk about. Then we changed how a rare front-page national news would be handled. We didn’t care what the president said or what the Speaker of the House said. We would write our own versions of these national stories to focus on our D.C. delegation and what this might actually mean to us here in Eastern Washington.
These things largely worked on several different levels, yet I still remember the first time I heard a local elected official complain that a local story we had written was “fake news.” At first, I was enraged. Those are fighting words.
Then I started to wonder if maybe there was a part of the story that was incorrect. I searched our archives and pored over every word of the article this politician had called “fake.” I talked with our reporter for the story and our other editors, not letting on why I was asking. I called the sources in the story to make sure they hadn’t been misquoted.
They hadn’t. And nothing else was wrong in the story. All of it was true. That’s when I went back to my initial instinct and got angry. This is called gaslighting.
Gaslighting is when someone says things that make others begin to doubt themselves, often making them question their own memories of things they have seen or heard themselves. It’s typically done over a long period of time, using denial and misinformation that can often make people begin to believe something that is simply not true.
None of this is being said to try to tell anyone that what they believe is wrong. But beliefs and truths aren’t the same. The truth is based on facts.
In my last four years at the Spokesman-Review, there isn’t a single instance when we have knowingly published something wrong. When we have made mistakes, we have corrected them. Because the truth matters. We recently stopped the presses when a wire story about the coronavirus dramatically changed after our print deadline—which is already later than most newspapers across the country. We did that because none of us wanted something that was incorrect to go to our readers.
It used to bother me that our newspapers weren’t sold at the checkout counters at our local grocery stores. Then I see those tabloids at the registers and realize it’s way better that they set our newspaper racks at the front of the store.
Because we are the real news.
Rob Curley is the editor of the Spokesman-Review in Washington and joined the newspaper in 2016. He has previously held leadership positions at the Orange County Register, Las Vegas Sun, Washington Post and Lawrence Journal-World. A full version of this column can be found here.