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EDITORIAL: Going down ‘fake news’ low road, Gov, is bad for democracy

Demonstrators stage an anti-Trump protest near Trump Tower on a Monday last February in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WBEZ does honest journalism, which is no small matter in a democracy.

To impugn the quality of that journalism to score a cheap political point is a disservice to that democracy, which depends on an informed citizenry to do the work of kings. Good journalism, factual and fair — and respected as such — is essential to a free country.

We’re pretty sure Gov. Bruce Rauner understands that. For all his complaints about how the local media has covered his administration, he’s never been one to run around shouting “fake news.”

Until now.

EDITORIAL

On Tuesday, Rauner accused WBEZ, the public radio station, of dropping its monthly “Ask the Governor” feature, in which he took questions from callers, because WBEZ is “really more of a Democrat station.”

That was factually untrue, and the governor owes the station an apology.

Radio show was fated to end

The truth, we have no doubt, is that WBEZ dropped the governor’s show for precisely the reason its CEO later explained — because the show was always scheduled to be dropped right about now, out of fairness to the other candidates for governor in next year’s elections. It would have been wrong for WBEZ, as the race heats up, to continue to grant the governor a special forum.

A former Rauner staffer told the Sun-Times it was understood all along that “Ask the Governor” would not carry into the campaign months.

The governor’s shot at WBEZ came five days after, on a Downstate radio show, he attacked the integrity of much of the local media as a whole. “What’s frustrating to me and many people around the state,” he said to Tom Miller of WJPF, “is how biased a lot of the media is around Chicago, around the state. Biased for the status quo.”

If the governor believes that certain columnists, editorial pages, bloggers, radio commentators and the like have it in for him, by all means he should call them out. He’s taken a whack at this editorial page plenty of times.

But most media companies operate from two separate silos — one for commentary, the other for news. One silo serves up opinion. The second serves up an honest effort to report the true facts of current events in a fair manner. Inevitably, the personal values of editors and reporters play a role, beginning with the choices they make about which stories to pursue. News shops are run by human beings.

But to broadly brand the news coverage of much of the mainstream media as biased and untrustworthy, just as a general rule, is to undermine the role of an institution — a free press — that is essential to a democracy. It is dangerous.

Actual facts are losing currency

We live at a time when the president of the United States, Donald Trump, works daily to undermine respect for basic truth and facts, and an alarmingly large number of his supporters are happy to chuck common sense. Barack Obama was born in Kenya, right? Trump lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants voted, right? Obama wiretapped Trump Tower in New York, right?

Up is down and down is up, and if you claim otherwise it’s “fake news.”

Actual facts, we fear, are fast losing currency in the marketplace of ideas. Before long there may be no common ground of truth, only opinions used as weapons of war. Maybe we’re already there.

WBEZ routinely produces solid journalism, beholden to no party or ideology. When WBEZ breaks the news that the Chicago Public Schools are putting the squeeze on special education classes, that’s not Democratic news or Republican news; that’s news worth knowing.

So it goes for all the mainstay news operations in Chicago and Illinois, including of course the Sun-Times, and we sure hope that’s understood. If a particular news story makes the mayor or the governor or your mother unhappy, most likely that’s because it’s a tough — but accurate — story. And if the story gets it wrong, the problem is less likely institutional bias than reporting and editing mistakes. Credible news shops, unlike the president, own up to those mistakes.

When, for example, a Washington Post reporter earlier this month tweeted out a photo of a small crowd at a Trump rally in Florida, only to learn later that the photo was taken before the crowd had filled in, he took down the photo and apologized. That didn’t stop Trump, that great defender of factual precision, from using the mistake to claim a grand conspiracy against him by the Post and demand the reporter be fired.

Spotting real from fake

There really is fake news. It seeps up from netherworld of the internet, and the Russians did a job of putting it out there during the last presidential election. But real and honest news reporting is all around, being produced even by cable TV news shops like Fox and MSNBC that are constantly slammed for bias.

The trick is to be a discerning consumer. Ignore the shilling talking heads like Sean Hannity and Joe Scarborough, and pay attention to the honest-to-god reporters, the ones doing reports from the White House lawn.

We stake our livelihood, as journalists, on the notion that facts matter, but an awful lot of people don’t seem to agree. The president’s constant harangue about “fake news” — when the news is anything but — has gotten serious traction. It’s even become an American export, used by brutal strongmen around the world to deflect any honest criticism.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, among others, have all in recent months complained of “fake news.”

Does Gov. Rauner really want to go down that low road?

There is a reason the charge of “fake news” sells in countries where democracy goes to die.

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