The war on professional journalism

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It was bound to happen. An ugly fake news story motivated an Internet reader to make an armed assault on a Washington pizza parlor. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the episode underscored how hate messages are increasingly imperiling not only innocent lives but the credibility of truthful, legitimate journalism in a particularly perilous time.

The invader drove to D.C. spurred by a false news fantasy that Hillary Clinton was behind a child molestation ring in the basement of the eatery. The malicious pipe dream flooded the Internet and was swallowed by the would-be rescuer of the nonexistent kids, who surrendered when confronted by police.


The incident came on the heels of a barrage of other fraudulent reports around the country. Their clear intent is to discredit liberal targets, tying them to equally false political chicanery spread by conservative conspirators. One of their champions has been Donald Trump's new chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, late of the right-wing Breitbart News website.

The phenomenon comes alongside the continuing rapid expansion of social media, which traffics in every aspect of personal opinion and commentary on actual news and events of the day. But it also often engages in rumor and gossip of unsubstantiated or questionable "factoids" offered as established fact.


What's now lumped together as the "content" of social media, fake news and paid journalism practiced by trained reporters and editors now share the same word transmission tool of the Internet. Inevitably, a fierce competition for readers has put each provider of content in conflict with rival providers in the other brands of information, whether it be fact or fiction.

Inevitably and unfortunately for the consuming public, truth often and too frequently has become a casualty. As the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan memorably observed, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

In the current mixed bag of content purveyors, traditional professional journalists are expected to adhere firmly to the Moynihan rule. In social media, though, it appears a lot of leeway is acceptable, and in fake news the rule is purposely and contemptuously violated, whether for profit, mischief or malice.

Inevitably as well, the trained adherents to traditional news reporting and editing must routinely and constantly fight against what they see as the steady erosion and even pollution of their products by the other two media competitors.

It's also said that truth is its own reward, but the old world of journalism committed to verifiable truth is being stood on its head today by intentionally fake news, with a casual regard for the ghost of Senator Moynihan.

As for print practitioners such as myself, in addition to the old straight news and fact reporting, opinion-writing has been allowed, as newspapers and news magazines have embraced commentary in the effort to keep them in business in a journalistic universe dominated by visual presentations via television and the Internet.

But as we offer such permitted commentary, we are obliged, and constantly monitored, to do so with the same allegiance to the truth as we see from other trained members of the journalistic fraternity.

Realistically, social media under looser boundaries can function and gain credibility by allowing lapses into rumor-mongering and carelessness with the truth, or insufficient research on subjects discussed verbally or in their Internet "posts."


Major mainstream newspapers, especially the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, have done yeoman work this year in truth-telling covering the 2016 presidential campaign and disputing claims and allegations of the candidates.

Yet what has come to be called "post-truth," a euphemism for shading or denying what campaigners and political apologists put forth as the real McCoy, challenges the time-honored obligations of legitimate news purveyors of all varieties to "tell it like it is," whatever the consequences.

In the end, readers and viewers likewise are now obliged to read and view this new complicated news and commentary landscape with more skepticism than ever, while hoping adherents to the Moynihan rule continue to keep the faith.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is