There’s truth, then everything else

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What is fake news?

Here’s the dictionary definition, according to Cambridge: “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the Internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”

But, the term is much more profane than that. It is a poison dart thrown whenever a person doesn’t agree with someone or something. Or doesn’t accept the truth because it conflicts with their mindset. Or, more simply, to dismiss a contrasting view with words and tone intended to wound.

Well, here’s a news flash: Journalists don’t wound easily.

We are, by profession, accustomed to challenge because we have been challenged since the very first newspaper was published in this country.

That newspaper, called Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, was printed in Boston on Sept. 25, 1690 and contained a mere four pages. It was shut down by order of the colonial government just four days later after government officials declared “high resentment and disallowance” of the publication.

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These same officials further decreed that no such publication could be printed without government license, a decree so disagreeable to colonists that it seeded our First Amendment. It was the first official tussle between government and journalists in this country, a tussle that has sustained itself no matter who sits in the White House.

In most recent times, think Johnson and the Pentagon Papers. Nixon and Watergate. Ford and the pardon pen. Carter and the economy. Reagan and Iran-Contra. George H. Bush and Panama. Clinton and Monica. George W. Bush and “Mission Accomplished.” Obama and the ACA.

In every case, and throughout history, administrations have defended themselves and attacked the press. Sometimes defending themselves by attacking the press.

Trump is doing the same, but has taken it to a higher level, with a more monied, more personal, more Hollywood flair. He’s got better script writers and the advantage of a social-media-enabled and addicted public.

His attacks on the press, though, are more than defensive. They’re destructive.

In January, according to The Atlantic, an Edelman poll showed a third of Americans don’t trust government to do the right thing, a 14 percent drop from the previous year.

Public trust in journalism is higher by comparison, at 42 percent. The previous year, that trust was measured at 47 percent, so journalism took a trust hit, but not nearly as great as that of the fledgling trust we have in our own government.

“The root cause of this fall,” the polling firm’s president told The Atlantic, is “attacks on the press and ‘evidence-based truth.’”

And, he warned that the country is suffering “from ‘truth decay’ as a result of political polarization and social media” because of a “lack of objective facts and rational discourse.”

Professional journalists deal in objective facts. Oh, there’s plenty of professional opinion out there in the combat of talking-head TV both liberal and conservative, but let’s accept much of that is for show. For the show. Rational discourse be damned, all in the name of winning a point. Converting a vote. Smashing an opponent.

And, then there’s the sickness out there from trolls who happily post fiction disguised as fact because they feed on disruption. The best example in Maine is the guy who inflates public fear with his fake Maine Police & Fire Alerts.

The National Library Association believes the “fake news” phenomenon to be such a threat to this country that, last year, it launched a project to help library patrons become better news consumers, to learn skills to help them seek out trusted professional media sources and ignore the ugly churn of all the rest. The Auburn Public Library and the Sun Journal were part of that project, and held a number of public events to separate fiction from facts.

It became a lesson in appreciation for local journalism, in knowing that the work of local journalists is essential to a thoughtful, safe and informed public.

In 2011, the Advertiser-Democrat’s investigation into squalid conditions of Section 8 housing in Norway forced state officials to relocate 14 residents to safe housing and prompted federal officials to craft additional housing safeguards for our poorest citizens.

That wouldn’t have happened without local journalism.

The Sun Journal’s 2014 investigation into a Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention order to shred financial documents in connection with public health programs — because it didn’t want the public to know how it spent public money — forced the state to formalize rules for public records storage.

That wouldn’t have happened without local journalism.

More recently, the Sun Journal’s examination into the inhumane transport of inmate Meghan Quinn from Florida to Maine convinced district attorneys across the state to cancel contracts with U.S. Prisoner Transport in favor of other transportation options that protect basic civil rights.

That wouldn’t have happened without local journalism.

Professional journalists — the people you see at your local selectmen’s meetings, sporting events, in the halls of the State House, covering crime in your neighbors and courts in your towns, reporting on local businesses and bringing you inspiring stories about your friends and neighbors — are not enemies of the people. We are your power and your voice.

We are members of a proud, free and independent press, and each one of us feels a call to duty to confront and carry the truth in every word and every image of every day.

That’s just about as real as it gets.

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