That left John Long, a native of Fredericktown and whose family founded and owns the Free Press Museum, to carry the topic alone. He is a veteran journalist, having worked for many years at the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Wall Street Journal and also teaches journalism at Hofstra University in New York.
With the help of a few questions from the audience, Long managed to fill the hour and offer his insights into how journalists can overcome perceptions of unreliability or being agents of fake news.
To overcome the decline in trust, he said, the media has to make every attempt to get the facts straight, but then, when mistakes are made — which they are — they need to run corrections as soon as possible.
He cited examples where even respected papers, such as the New York Times, ran stories that turned out to have been fabricated by the reporter. To retain the public’s trust they needed to admit the error, correct errors if possible and punish the editors and reporters that were responsible. As part of that, he bemoaned the loss of ombudsmen at most newspapers, due to costs. The ombudsmen, he explained, interacted with the public, fielding questions and complaints, correcting errors and generally keeping lines of communication open between the public and the newspaper.
He summed up regaining trust in four points: 1) Try to be accurate; 2) Don’t be arrogant; admit mistakes; 3) Invite criticism; 4) Do a better job of explaining how and what journalists do to get the story.
But what is fake news?
Long said there are two kinds: “Real” fake news, which he described as stories made up by a writer somewhere around the world and used to attract advertising dollars on the Internet, or stories made up by hostile governments and used to foment disorder in other countries, often western democracies.
Then there is “fake” fake news, which is real news twisted to make it look like the reporter or news organization is making it up or has a partisan goal. Unfortunately, time ran out before he could get back to the subject and give examples of the latter.
Where should the public turn to get just the facts on topics of national interest?
Long commented that he thinks the most objective newscasts are National Public Radio and Television. He noted that they not only play it right down the center, but do it with civility.
He also commented that news operations, both print and broadcast, should follow the admonition of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.”
The most interesting question of the evening was the last. What did Long think of the New York Times’ decision to publish the anonymous Op-Ed piece about the Trump administration?
Long noted it was published on an opinion page so the decision was made by the Editorial Board, not the news staff.
“It took guts. They would have known who he or she was and they must have decided it was important enough to publish, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times they have done something like this in my lifetime,” he said, adding that they knew it would draw a lot of criticism.
“I don’t know if I could have done it.”