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Considering the nature of news, the attacks on the truth and the status of journalism in the Age of Trump

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From the SD Newspaper Association, a lapel pin that matters

Before I get to Randell Beck and the troubled state of our beloved news business, let me backtrack a couple of weeks to explain how I ended up as the keynote speaker at the upcoming Pennington County Bar Association banquet.

I blame Alicia Garcia. But not just Alicia, also her ability to multi-task her way through two jobs — news anchor at KOTA-TV and lawyer with Abourezk Law here in Rapid City — while also parenting one, two, three, four kids.

Which is pretty impressive to a barely-single-tasker like me. So I was inclined to listen when Alicia said she had an offer that she hoped I wouldn’t refuse: speaking to the Pennington County Bar Association on free speech and a free press, calling on my long and slightly above-average journalism career here in South Dakota for material.

I added the “slightly above average" thing. She was more complimentary than that, bless her heart.

And with free speech and free press, she brought up a combined subject near and dear to both of our hearts. So while I tend to be protective of my free time for fishing and hunting and other life essentials, it’s hard for a semi-retired guy to tell a multi-tasking full-time professional that he just doesn’t have time for speaking engagement.

So I agreed. But first, I clarified that I’d show up without a PowerPoint presentation, which I’ve never presented, or even a carousel slide show, which I last operated, badly, during presentations for state tourism back in the mid-1980s, during a two-year-break from news.

More likely, I said, I’ll show up with a few notes, a few hopefully well-informed opinions and a few stories, some of which will involve Bill Janklow and his periodic battles with reporters, including me. That point in the presentation will expand to why the respective wars on the news media waged by Janklow then and Donald Trump now are in a few ways similar and in many ways different.

Alicia said that sounded perfect, which already set bar too high for me to clear. But it wouldn’t be the first time. And I come cheap — a plate of heavy hors d’oeuvres and a non-alcoholic beer. 

So we’re set.

Next step, for a reporter, is to call around a bit and get some other perspectives.  Because one of the things a reporter’s life teaches is that you don’t know it all, and some of what you know isn’t exactly right, or at least isn’t exactly complete.

So reporters “make some calls” to find out more. And one of my first calls for this speech was to Randell Beck, whom I worked for at the Argus when he was executive editor, prior to becoming publisher. And that was prior to him retiring and joining with another of my former Argus editors, Jack Marsh, in establishing South Dakota News Watch, a news-gathering non-profit that aims to help fill in some of the coverage gaps left by the still-essential-but-understaffed mainstream news outlets in South Dakota.

Randell Beck knows news. And since he’s almost as old as I am, he knows it for quite a ways back. So here we go, a couple of old gray hairs — I have more than he does, but that’s faint praise — considering the business of news.Image - RandellBeckComputer.jpeg

I called looking for some helpful perspectives for my speech. I got that and a lot more, and soon had enough for a blog piece beyond the speech.

First, I asked Beck about Donald Trump and what his really unprecedented war against the news media and general disregard for facts has done and is doing to our business and our nation. Trump is popular in this very Republican state, and I understand why some of his tax and regulatory and social positions would make conservatives here happy.

Those policy initiatives and philosophies are one thing. His behavior and the content of his speech -- by mouth and tweet -- are something else entirely. My concern is that Trump’s truth distortion and fact denial does not just damage the national political dialogue but also influences millions of people, who seem to think if the president plays fast and loose with reality they can, too, and maybe should.

There has always been plenty of truth manipulation or denial in politics, but Trump has taken it to previously unknown levels for a president, at least in my lifetime. There has always been plenty of truth manipulation or denial in the social media world, but Trump is encouraging it to get worse, by daily example.

Truth as a social value has, perhaps, never been quite so undervalued by so many. That’s my take, or part of it. Here’s some of what Beck had to say:

“I think there’s no question that Trump’s bully pulpit times 20 has empowered people at every level to say stuff that isn’t true,” Beck says. “He laughs about it. Even people in positions of authority snicker about it and sort of nudge each other. And we’ve sort of accepted it. We’ve sort of said it’s OK, at some level, whether he speaks the truth of not is no longer important, which is a shocking change.”

Beck thinks that leads more people to play with the truth, or simply deny or manipulate or disregard it, in order to get their way or accomplish some political goal, which is dangerous and threatening to the traditional news institutions and to the way the public perceives and values facts.

 But just as threatening, Beck says, is the way some of those institutions are reacting to Trump’s attacks on them and on the truth. And the unhealthy reactions come at a time when the familiar news outlets have already been diminished by reductions in staff and other resources, he said.

“Certainly, we know how mainstream journalism has been weakened to its core, where the franchise, that reliability of standing up to sources of power, has been weakened just because the resources have been taken away,” Beck says. “Of equal concern is how some of our great institutions, some of our most well-sourced journalistic institutions have, I think, in some ways crossed over the line into advocacy.”

The temptation is understandable, I think. When you’re constantly under attack, there’s an inclination to strike back. When you see facts distorted or denied with a constant stream of comments and tweets, you can be tempted to go farther than normal to counteract it.

Instead of just pointing out factual errors and trying to correct the record in solid news reporting, some might be inclined to push the boundaries of reporting beyond the facts and even beyond interpretation the facts.

Beck understands why that has happened to some of the biggest, most notable news outlets during a time when Donald Trump has “completely turned the body politic into anarchy. So the New York Times, the Washington Post and others are almost drawing a line in the sand, and at times I think have ventured into advocacy. They are in many cases entering dangerous territory, where they are becoming the story not just reporting the story.”

That has been especially true with certain broadcast-news personalities and outlets targeted by Trump. But Beck believes some print outlets have fallen under the spell of overreaction, too. And it can hurt journalism and further confuse an already bewildered news-consuming public.

“I think we’re beginning to see that it’s not clear what a news story is,” Beck said. “And I think it’s really a scary time in the news business.”

South Dakota News Watch is attempting to strengthen the traditional news reporting functions of the journalism business by providing scrupulously straight news and avoiding advocacy and editorializing, Beck says. And as hard as it might be, he encourages mainstream news outlets to meet their obligation to continued that long-held standard, too.

And most of them do, and will. I think Beck and I agree on that. If there's a problem with news outlets crossing lines, it's much more of a problem the farther you get from front steps and TV sets and computer screens and radios of people here in South Dakota.

But news outlets aren't the only ones with skin in this game, or responsibilities. News readers and watchers and listeners have their own responsibilities, too. Perhaps the most important is taking a more balanced, inquisitive, questioning and discerning approach to the expanded world of available information, some of which is news, much of which isn't.

Some of which is factual, much of which isn't. Professional journalist do what we can to sort through all that and provide factual accounts of news events and newsmakers. But consumers have to make choices from a barrage of news options.

“From a citizen’s standpoint, it’s more important than ever that we read, and read wisely,” Beck said. “It’s no longer good enough for me to read the Rapid City Journal and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. I think I need to watch Fox,  MSNBC, and others. We need to select a range of outlets that, in our world today, may each represent a certain viewpoint or world view.”

Beck fears thoughtful, broadly read news consumers are “becoming an endangered species” as the national trends and the nasty us-versus-them environment leads more people to pick a publication or, especially, a cable news outlet that affirms their beliefs  and quickly becomes “their own echo chamber.”Image - RandellBeckSmile.jpeg

And it's all made worse by cutbacks to news staff and the downsizing and even the closures of some newspapers, which turns poeople away from traditional news outlets toward other, less-reliable options. Beck sees that as a real danger to democracy.

“Newspapers were first, but make no mistake about it, media outlets of all kinds are under assault, through our economy, different business models,” he says. “Many of those news outlets are hanging on by their fingernails.”

And the essential public service they provide in a free nation is hanging with them as well.

That’s especially true as certain areas lose news outlets that had long been essential to their consumers. And if things don’t change, it could get worse.

“I think we face the danger that at some point there will be great parts of this country where people will be without professional journalists as we know them, which means no one will be paying attention, no one will be watching those in power, those in government,” Beck says. “That’s a huge concern. I think it threatens our democracy in much more fundamental ways than Donald Trump does.”

What has happened here in South Dakota over the course of my career has been jarring. I started covering news in the 1970s and from then on into the 1990s the papers like the Sioux Falls Argus Leader and the Rapid City Journal had twice as many reporters, or more, than they have today. More photographers, too. And whole copy desks that are now missing almost completely. To say nothing of a variety of other editorial-team members, all essential in producing a quality newspaper.

There was a time when the Argus, the Journal and the Aberdeen American News all had a full-time reporter stationed in Pierre to cover state government. For a while the Argus had two there. Now none of those papers has a reporter living and working in Pierre, although some show up during the legislative session. And other news outlets have cut back, too.

“In our state capital, we are lucky there are some people still covering things. But that could easily be gone in a year or two. And then what?” Beck wonders. “If the Legislature meets for two months and nobody’s really paying attention to what’s happening, that’s a scary thought.”

And yet, Beck remains optimistic overall. He figures that Trump and those who share his powerful antipathy toward mainstream news outlets will move on eventually, but journalism will remain.

“I think the bigger challenge, honestly, is understanding what journalism is and holding on to the rule that defines what is credible and true and powerful, and that ultimately will beat back Donald Trump,” Beck said. “The summary of the Bible is God wins. The summary of the narrative we see right now is that ultimately the press will beat back this effort to demonize journalism.”

And the best way to do it,  Beck says, is by producing the kind of balanced, accurate journalism that serves not just the news business and its readers, but democracy itself.