The Battle Between Fake News and Real People

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One of the many things Americans like to pride themselves on is their right to speak freely, assemble peacefully and publish information without censorship. But words like “freely,” “peacefully” and “censorship” are just words with subjective meanings. How free is our speech and how does our government define censorship? Even the simplest brush up on communication law will show that there is a plethora of exceptions to the First Amendment in America. According to Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organization that promotes journalistic freedom around the world, the United States ranks 45 on the World Press Freedom Index of 180 countries. However, hearing that should not actually be terribly surprising to Americans if they think rationally rather than in subjective terms. We have an administration that rails against the facts presented by journalists, and often uses its public relations arm to feed journalists misinformation. We have a public that cherrypicks facts and opinions that coincide with their own beliefs, a “choose your own reality” of sorts. And on June 29, a man took these anti-truth sentiments into action by massacring five journalists at a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

The aftermath of this tragedy only further exemplified much of the American public’s contempt for the news media, as political provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos tried to deny highly publicized calls for violence against journalists. President Trump didn’t even try that hard, as he ignored reporter’s request for a comment on the shooting, only to offer “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet the next day. But the show of utter contempt and disrespect didn’t stop there. After reports swirled about Trump’s refusal to lower the nation’s flags in honor of the victims, the president finally caved and lowered flags after denying the Annapolis mayor’s initial request.

But, believe it or not, this is not a new problem and it’s not even a Trump problem. Many liberals have quickly forgotten the Obama administration’s assault on the free press when the Justice Department seized the phone records of editors and journalists from The Associated Press in an effort to determine the source of leaked classified material. The Justice Department did not inform the A.P. about the seizure or even the investigation ahead of time, leaving the entire publication bewildered as to how its Constitutional rights could be assaulted so easily in what former A.P. chief executive Gary Pruitt called, “a massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the outlet’s journalistic practices. The A.P. had even delayed the release of the particular article, at the request of the White House, on a terrorist plot foiled by the C.I.A. but in the end Justice Department officials still seized phone records from more than 20 telephone lines of reporters and editors.

But even as Trump works tirelessly to tear down every policy and precedent set by Obama, he has ironically embraced the practice of seizing journalist’s phone records in a vein attempt to crackdown on leaks coming from his own uncontrollable administration. Last month, more details emerged in the ongoing saga of New York Times national security reporter Ali Watkins who had years worth of email and phone records seized by the Justice Department as part of an investigation into her ties with Senate Intelligence Committee security director James Wolfe. It turned out that the two had been romantically involved, and if we learned anything from Peter Struck and Lisa Page, that gives the government carte blanche to go digging into any and all parts of a person’s private life.

But this battle is not even about the journalists who are reporting the facts, it is about pursuing the people who provided information to journalists. Much the same way young children are being used as a bargaining tool in the fight over immigration, the free press is being held hostage by administrations fighting to keep information away from the American people. And when those tactics are combined with a hardening of public opinion against traditional news, it only allows the government to go bolder. A Monmouth University poll found that 77 percent of Americans believe that mainstream outlets report “fake news” in some capacity. Even if the other 23 percent all stand up and fight for a free and independent press, one that is willing to challenge what the government says rather than simply repeat it, that’s still nowhere near the numbers needed to enact any change. Even if we do have the popular vote, we still need a voice that only dedicated media professionals can give.

One of the tricky things about defending the rights of journalists is that the Bill of Rights, and subsequent court rulings, don’t distinguish journalists from the rest of the population, which makes things even more interesting in this age of citizen journalism. The media is made up of regular people who are afforded the same rights as any one of the citizens they report on. But what gives them their power is when they band together to act as a proxy for the American people by holding institutions and leaders accountable. But if we continue to erode those tools we have given to journalists, like communicating with confidential sources with important information, they will no longer be able to represent us and our best interests. These stories of government intrusion into the lives of journalists are not merely displays of an administration flexing its muscles, setting an example by taking away an outlets megaphone, but instead they go to the very essence of journalism: access to information. And whether you’re with The New York Times, Fox News, The Guardian, or just posting stories to your Twitter page, if you don’t have information, you don’t have a story.