Understanding the role of journalists in a democracy and separating fake news from the real thing

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
John Tsitrian at the front desk of his Wall motel

We were talking about news — real, fake and imperfect — when the microphone went down the line of panelists, hand to hand.

It began with Eric Abrahamson, writer, historian and founder of Vantage Point Historical Services. From there it went to Richie Richards, a writer for Native Sun News Today and host of Oyate Today on KEVN TV — and also one of the funniest, most insightful Facebook commentators around.

Then the hand microphone was passed to Victoria Wicks, a former victims advocate who worked for a while as a reporter for the Rapid City Journal when I was there. But she has since carved out a freelance journalism career, with frequent stories on South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Then it was on to me and then to Chynna Lockett, a young, passionate reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting here in Rapid City. She gave the mic to John Tsitrian, an independent businessman with past securities trading experiences who writes a newspaper column and a blog called the Constant Commoner.

He’s also a guy who knows about real fake news, the kind that can kill.

It did kill during the Vietnam War, which was expanded and continued at least in part because of government delusion and dishonesty — and, yes, also the failures of news outlets to get at the truth. The expansion and continuation of that war resulted in tens of thousands of additional casualties among U.S. military personnel and even worse carnage among the Vietnamese.

As a 19-year-old radio man in a Marine unit operating near the demilitarized zone, Tsitrian first saw real fake news there. It was coming from the military and officials of the Lyndon Johnson administration and reported by news outlets, who with few exceptions at that point hadn’t challenged the military and the White House in digging out the truth about the war. More on Tsitrian’s sad epiphany in a moment.

But back to our panel, which was organized for a discussion on the news through Democracy in Action, working with the South Dakota Humanities Council and the Rapid City Public Library. The event was called Truth in the News: Democracy and the Informed Citizen, and it was shaped around the One Book South Dakota selection this year: Informing the News by Thomas Patterson.

Panelists were supposed to have read the book prior to our panel last week. I didn’t, of course. As I noted to Lori Walsh on SDPB’s In the Moment, one of my greatest strengths as a panelist is a lack of preparation, which should tell you something about my other strengths, and weaknesses.

I feel kind of bad about not reading Patterson’s book, since he’s apparently a South Dakota State University graduate. He will be featured in this year’s South Dakota Festival of Books, which will be held Sept. 20-23 at venues in Brookings and Sioux Falls.

I intend to have Patterson’s book read, or at least skimmed, partly skimmed, at worst, prior to that. No sense further disappointing my niece, Jennifer, who is director of the Center for the Book with the Humanities Council. So I should be better prepared by the time of the book festival, should someone ask my opinion, officially or otherwise.

I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the panel discussion last week, even without the book. News is about all I’ve known as a professional. As a friend once said, “If you lose your reporter’s job we’ll have to shoot you. You can’t do anything else.”

I wrote my first news story, a single freelance piece, for the weekly Chamberlain Register back in 1973. And writing stories and columns and blogs and other journalism-type stuff is about all I’ve done in a professional sense since. Well, I did publish an outdoor tabloid newspaper for a couple of years in the 1980s, when I proved myself to be neither a businessman nor an ad salesman.

And there was that two-year dalliance with government work, just prior to the tabloid venture, where I wrote and photographed and hosted travel and outdoors writers for South Dakota Tourism. But I couldn’t stay away from news, particularly newspapers, and I got in on some pretty good times in the newspaper business. Ad sales were good, along with subscriptions. Newsrooms were well staffed. News people were still respected, generally, if not entirely trusted.

Back then, journalists were part of a pretty select system of gatekeepers who shaped the flow of essential information to the public in the United States. My, how things have changed. Now there are no gatekeepers of information because there are no gates. People who used to believe what Walter Cronkite said and David Broder wrote now often look for information that affirms what they believe or want to believe.

And it’s easy enough to find it.

Newspaper ad sales are down. Subscriptions are down. Newspaper staffs are way down, often less than half what they were in, say, 1980 or even 1990. And committed readers of real news — committed enough, that is, to seek it out and pay for it — are a dwindling, gray haired population that can’t carry what’s left of the business forever.

Most people these days don’t seek news. They select information. And if it doesn’t affirm or conform, it is now easy to label it “fake news,” as President Trump seems to do with any story he doesn’t like. Those who love Trump love to use “fake news” in much the same way.

That casts doubt on everything mainstream news reporters do, in the minds of some consumers, at least. And it leads to tiresome debates over what is fake news and what isn’t.

My take on that is this: fake news is a very different thing than imperfect news, which is real news produced by real news reporters, but which is sometimes reported or written or presented imperfectly. Real-but-imperfect news, which might have an imbalance in sourcing or a partial misquote, is still news.  It’s just news that needs to get better.

I’ve written some of that imperfect news myself. Still do, from time to time. But I didn’t write fake news. Still don’t.

Fake news is just fiction — such as the story late in the 2016 presidential campaign about Hillary Clinton and John Podesta running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizza parlor.

To be clear, that did not happen. Did. Not. Happen. Yet it made the rounds online and a shocking number of people who read it believed that it did, or wanted to believe that it did, and shared it with others. Or they didn’t know what to believe, and shared it anyway.

Nor did Pope Francis endorse Donald Trump, or call for confiscation of firearms. Yet both of those “stories” made the social media rounds. I know, I saw them flash up on the screen myself, along with an occasional headline such as “Cher Admits to Shooting Sonny.” (OK, that one I made up, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it were out there.)

I dismiss that stuff. I wish everyone did. Because passing it on simply helps the fake-news purveyors damage and confuse the image of real news, distort public perception, demean public dialogue and even affect the outcome of elections.

In today’s barrage of information, it can be difficult to separate fact from distortion from outright fiction. That’s particularly true when some people, some manipulators, are working to trick us into believing things that aren’t true really are.

A day or two ago, I got a message from a Facebook friend that read: “Any truth in this?”

The “this” was a “story” under the headline: “Lisa Page Squeals: DNC Server Was Not Hacked By Russians.”

The story said the former FBI lawyer who exchanged texts critical of Donald Trump with a FBI agent during the presidential campaign has admitted that it was China, not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee computer server.

Blockbuster stuff, huh? Yeah, except that there’s no basis for it, no known facts to back it up. And the YourNewsWire web site that presented the “story” is on a list of sites that have published fake news. Real fake news.

I sent the link so identifying YourNewsWire to my friend. And I also wondered how many people had read and believed and shared that story, without checking it out.

Check it out. Please. Always. Especially before share it with friends.

Shortly after I sent the link to my Facebook friend, I called John Tsitrian to talk more about his fake-news experience in Vietnam.  He was there for a bit more than a year, beginning in late 1966. By the fall of  1967, he was learning about the realities of that war and how often they failed to show up accurately in coverage presented by news outlets back in the United States.

About the same time Tsitrian was deciding that the war “was a wasted effort,” General William Westmoreland was telling the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that the end of the war was no more than two years away.

At that time, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who promoted expanding the U.S. military presence in Vietnam through most of the 1960s, was beginning to doubt the popular “domino theory,” which said that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, one country after another would follow.

You know, sort of the “South Vietnam today, Wyoming tomorrow” theme. While turning skeptical on that, McNamara also he was beginning to doubt the war itself, and our chances of winning. But he wasn’t saying that publicly.

The Tet Offensive in late January of 1968 began to put the lie to whitewashed accounts of military exercises, underestimates of enemy strength and exaggeration of enemy casualty estimates. Tet also changed the way news outlets covered the war and approached statistics and officials comments.

In February, Walter Cronkite went to see the war for himself, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. He spent most of a month there, and saw the carnage himself. When he returned, he anchored an hour special that concluded with Cronkite warning readers that he was going from reporter to commentator at the end:

“It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate,” Cronkite said. “Is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

“This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.”

Reporting changed after that. It still wasn’t perfect. And it took the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 to reveal the extent of the deception and the role President Johnson played. But the change had begun.

All that informed the journalism profession in the United States. But it didn’t prevent weak reporting after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the eventual build-up leading to the invasion of Iraq. A mix of “fake news,” ignorance, hubris, insidious intentions by some government officials and flawed reporting by many of the news media helped allow the invasion, which many now consider to have been a mistake — one that also cost thousands of lives.

The business learned from that, too, although it wouldn’t have much time to fully implement that knowledge, before the end of the great era of newspapers came into view. Still, real professional reporters continue to produce professional news, even in the face of sharply reduced resources. And they continue their work to improve as professionals.

I’m not as critical about the state of modern journalism as Thomas Patterson seems to be. Nor do I profess, as he seems to, any great insights on a solution. I’m not sure what it is. How do we get people with the money to pay for news to respect it enough to invest in it — every day?


Tsitrian says it takes a more focused effort by journalists to understand what readers want and need and give it to them in well-researched, well-written stories, challenging those who would obstructive and deceive and digging beyond such obstacles for the truth.

Tsitrian isn’t now and never has been a regular news reporter.  But he does believe in reporting the news, although in his case it is typically with a personal slant. He believes in telling the truth as he sees it, a belief that goes all the way back to his Vietnam experience.


“That’s one of the things that motivates me now,” he said. “I said if I ever had a public voice I would try to call things as clearly as I saw them.” 

He does that on his blog and in his column in the Rapid City Journal --and with his memories of a time and a place where the news really was fake, and people died because of it.
 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.