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Bill Straub: Civics lesson for Independence Day and the most joyful event of them all — press bashing

Tis the 4th of July, time for baseball, firecrackers, backyard barbeques and the most joyful event of them all, press bashing.

As usual, it’s the president of the United States, Extremely Stable Genius, leading this Independence Day parade, asserting reports that his administration dropped plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form are “FAKE!”

Forget for a moment that the accounts regarding the question’s demise, which appeared in the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other reliable media outposts, were based on the statement of ESG’s own Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who announced that his department has “started the process of printing the decennial questionnaires without the question.’’ Focus instead on all the additional times ESG has ranted about “fake news,’’ characterizing the press as the “enemy of the people.”

Here’s a good one from April: “The press is doing everything within their power to fight the magnificence of the phrase, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! They can’t stand the fact that this Administration has done more than virtually any other Administration in its first 2 yrs. They are truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!”

The 4th of July seems as good a time as any to review the job of the press, the lone occupation mentioned in the Constitution, and the ramped-up attacks against it. It’s gone so far that ESG and his new best pal, Russia President Vladimir Putin (don’t tell that other vicious despot, Kim Jong-un about the relationship – he might get jealous), are trading sniggers about the press, with ESG exclaiming “Get rid of them.”

The genius obviously is not alone in seeking journalism’s expiry. Kentucky’s little gnat of a governor, ESG’s mini-me, St. Matt the Divine of New Hampshire, is equally caustic in his evaluation, ignoring Frankfort scribes like the plague, save for the time his vituperation runneth over. With his poll numbers in the toilet, Mad Matt still has his embrace of ESG and his foul view of the press to fall back on. A real profile in courage there.

I should note at this point that I don’t really care what clowns like ESG and St. Matt think of the state of journalism, a trade I have been associated with since the Paleozoic Age. I hold to an old dictum voiced by my journalism hero, Jimmy Breslin, that as a reporter “you’re supposed to be despised.” If individuals like ESG, Mad Matt and others going back years like Mitch McConnell and Brereton Jones actually liked me, I would soon come to the realization I wasn’t doing my job.

Because that’s what the job is simply – telling the truth, often to people who don’t want to hear it. Understandably a lot of folks, especially politicians, don’t like it and they make their displeasure known. Fine. They rant and rave and pretty soon supporters and sycophants who think they’re followers of the greatest thing since canned beer join in and the press becomes the enemy of the people.

A lot of folks in the business are disturbed by this trend and, truthfully, it makes some of them a little gun shy. Incidents like those at ESG rallies, where he riles up the crowd and the true believers express their scorn profanely like rubes at a side, toward the assembled scribes, have some reporters on edge. Rather than report accurately – use, for instance, a phrase like “Trump lied,’’ which he, of course, does constantly – too many reporters run around Robin Hood’s barn to come off with some sort of euphemism to keep them from stating the obvious.

There’s only one way to address that issue – do your job, tell the truth and don’t get intimidated.

All of which brings us to a discussion about allegations of a liberal slant on the news page, the basis for the claim of fake news. Any halfway decent news story is going to cover not only the facts but the context, the background and some idea about where the situation might be headed in the future. Too often, critics claim, stories carry a leftist slant and can’t be trusted, establishing them as fake.

It’s difficult to make a claim of bias on a lot of stories. It’s hard to find any slant in a story about a car accident, a water main break or in most of the stories that appear on a daily or weekly newspaper.

The issue primarily involves stories about politics and the workings of the government. It would be foolish to claim bias never slips into any of these stories. Deadlines often make for expedited perusals by copy editors and it would be silly to claim mistakes aren’t made.

But most of the time this idea that the news is constantly laced with opinion is used by folks whose biases are exposed by the facts. Hence you get a president calling something fake news that his Commerce secretary has already confirmed.

Many people, it seems, conflate opinion columns and editorials with news content even though they serve different and distinct purposes. News stories inform. Columns and editorials are intended to spark debate, a key element in a civil society. It’s the opinions found in a newspaper that gets some readers hot and bothered, asserting they can draw their own conclusions. Great. So don’t read them.

But the whole idea that the news follows a paper’s editorial opinion and that most of those opinions are far to the left are absurd. Heck, there are a lot of conservative newspapers and columnists out there to be the case. In my years working the trade in Kentucky I had contact with three journalists who ran for public office. All of them were Republicans. One, Bill Bartleman, once of the Paducah Sun and a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, is now a McCracken County commissioner.

During my years working in Washington, including a six-year stint as White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service, I knew as many reporters who were Republicans as Democrats.

I believe it was Henrik Ibsen who first coined the phrase in 1882 with his play, An Enemy of the People. In it, the protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockman, attempts to convince the citizens of a small town in southern Norway about the deleterious effects of a tannery, which is contaminating the water at the local spa, a revelation that could impact the region’s economy.

The town leaders – including, ironically, the newspaper editor – are enraged and condemn Stockman rather than take his claim seriously. It is at a town meeting where Stockman reveals his findings and the local citizenry call him, used guessed it, an enemy of the people. Rather than leave town, Stockman remains, noting “that considerations of expediency turn morality and justice upside down.”

Oh, and it was a term frequently used in Stalinist Russia.

Thus ends our Independence Day civics lesson. Remember me when you pop the next top.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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