Brian J. Hunhoff
Community journalist
Yankton, S.D.
“Captain Jack” Crawford was one of the original Black Hills Rangers. He survived many Old West adventures and was called “The Poet Scout.” Following is the fifth and final stanza of Crawford’s 1889 poem, “Truth.”
Truth may sparkle like diamonds,
But some men will cast it aside,
And instead they will treasure the mica,
And say to the truth, “Let her slide.”
But truth is the old rock of ages
Upon which our forefathers stood.
Without it there may be corruption,
And with it our lives must be good.
Jack Crawford died 29 years before Donald Trump was born, but he warned of people like this president who uses the White House bully pulpit to smear critical press as “fake news.”
“Fake news” was a leading theme of Trump’s successful 2016 campaign so it’s no surprise he says it from the Oval Office. It’s more concerning to hear that reckless phrase weaponized by elected officials who ought to know better. As trends go, this is a bad one.
South Dakota Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, a 2018 candidate for Congress, has enjoyed mostly sunny news coverage in her young political career. That did not stop her from sounding alarms when S.D. press asked about controversial views of a prominent endorser. Her response was asking supporters to “take a stand against FAKE news” by sending donations to her campaign.
Attacking media gives politicians a handy smokescreen from inconvenient facts and clearly sells well in red states. But responsible leaders do not pander to polls while ignoring threats to democracy. Winning isn’t everything. There is more at stake.
Life in America is a precious gift. Fewer than one in seven people worldwide live in a free press environment. It protects us from totalitarian regimes that would gladly make their government our only source of news.
The sometimes unpopular role of the U.S. press is checking facts, investigating possible misdeeds, and holding powerful entities accountable. The Fourth Estate’s goal is the truth, much the same as our courts. Are we circling a drain where unwelcome court decisions get flushed down an Oval hole as “fake justice”?
President Trump says the press is “the enemy of the American people.” He has described the media as “disgusting” and “scum.” Since his inauguration as leader of the free world, there has been an exponential increase in harassment, imprisonment and assault of reporters all over the globe. Some of his followers wear tee-shirts that say: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”
The 45th President would have you believe the media’s role is to serve him. Criticism of his erratic words and deeds are reframed by Sean Hannity et al. as unpatriotic attacks on America.
Heed the words of Sen. John McCain: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. Without it, I am afraid we would lose so many of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
Our founding fathers did not always like their newspaper coverage, but they knew a free press was democracy’s best defense. They enshrined that ideal as one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment.
Now we have President Trump attacking anyone who holds him accountable for anything. He talks of opening up libel laws so “we can sue (journalists) and make lots of money.” He tweets about challenging the licenses of networks who broadcast “fake news.” (Presumably, Fox News will remain on the air.)
The press sometimes get it wrong, but those mistakes have been amplified while stories about Trump’s easily disproven parade of lies get flushed away as “fake.”
Tommy Smothers did a comedy bit where he told an obvious lie and refused to back down. When pressed to admit the truth, he said, “The truth is whatever you can get people to believe.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Donald Trump. He brings new life to the 2,500-year-old words of Sophocles: “How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there is no help in the truth.”
There are questions that cry for answers we may not want to hear. Has the American president divided the United States so deeply that sound bites outweigh facts? Does faith in our favorite political flavor matter more than proof? Are we choosing news sources for information or ammunition? What is the effect on our country’s collective self-respect when we knowingly elect a blatant liar?
Casually casting truth aside is a dangerous road to travel. Voltaire said, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
We must keep our eyes open. The risk is real.
Brian Hunhoff is an award-winning community journalist from Yankton, South Dakota. His editorials about open government, freedom of information, and the First Amendment have appeared in hundreds of newspapers and blogs from all 50 states and some foreign countries. He can be reached at [email protected]