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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Curley: Let’s have an honest talk about ‘fake news’ and what local newspapers really do

UPDATED: Sat., April 25, 2020

Many of us likely remember what it was like as we waited in the checkout lane at the local grocery store when we were younger. That was back before cashiers had scanners at the end of those scrolling belts that seemed to automagically move the Mac & Cheese at just the right time.

Kids today have no idea how long it used to take as each item’s price was manually typed. It felt like an eternity. And if some bag of marshmallows didn’t have a price tag on it and there was a price check that was called over the store’s speakers, well, you could forget about getting home in time to ride your bike before it would get dark.

Many of us remember that never-ending line, and we know its truth.

Speaking of the truth, because of all of that checkout line time spent longingly looking at the Hubba Bubba and Hershey’s when Mom was never going to relent and let us have the candy as a sweet payment for our sacrifice, it also was the first time most of us saw those crazy, oddly shaped, newspapers that were right next to sugar heaven. Their headlines were fantastic and as soon as we mentioned that we should get one, we’d be told those stories weren’t real.

“That’s fake news,” Mom would say.

Even if the articles in these tabloids weren’t exactly factual, stories about how the aliens who crashed in Roswell actually invented the microwave seemed exactly what you want to read when “Star Wars” is your new favorite movie. And when you want so badly to believe something might be real, 35 cents seems like an awfully low price to pay to keep that hope alive.

But we suspected Mom was right.

Then we’d go to school where we’d be taught the history of all of our country’s wars. World War II was always so hard to understand because there is no way a country would do things that were that evil. How could so many people be talked into thinking that was OK?

Teachers often explained how it could happen using one word, “propaganda.” Well, what’s that? “It’s fake news,” we’d be told in class. “Citizens were told things that weren’t true, that – because of the times and their own hardships – they wanted to believe.”

Seemed like crazy talk to us back in the fifth grade.

For most people of a certain age, these are the first examples we remember of being told that something less than honest was being sold as the truth. This is when most of us began to understand what “fake news” really was.

Today, we hear the phrase all the time, but it’s oddly been turned into something that seems charged and political, whether what is being reported is factual or not. And if the story actually is true, there are now “alternate facts” you should believe are truer, despite facts not really working that way.

Back in February 2017, this was perplexing to me. I had been at The Spokesman-Review for about half a year when I asked our other editors what they would think about doing a few stories on what “fake news” really is, and at the same time, maybe explain the difference between a news story, an opinion column and an editorial.

At around this same time, I was speaking across Eastern Washington and North Idaho for every Rotary Club, young leaders group, retired leaders council, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, book club, church group, neighborhood association, the Kiwanis, retirement home, college class and sewing group in the region. I’d speak at the opening of an envelope if you asked me.

There was always one question asked – and still asked – every time I speak to any group.

“How do you feel about fake news?”

Well, that’s easy: I hate it. It goes against everything our newspaper’s journalists believe in and everything our newsroom stands for. Though if there really are aliens at Area 51, the existence of Las Vegas is all the proof most of us need.

“No, that’s not what I mean. What do you think about there being so much fake news now?”

That’s when I get to explain what local newspapers really do and what we all know are truthful things.

When we print a story about a road closing on Monday for construction, that’s true. When we say the previous day’s high temperature was 22 degrees and that it snowed 2.7 inches out at the airport, we all know it’s true … even if we don’t want either to be true.

If we run a story that says Gonzaga scored more than 100 points and beat Santa Clara by 50 points, we know that’s true. And probably an annual occurrence. Or maybe there’s an article about how your favorite local restaurant will close in a few weeks. None of us doubt that story’s validity and immediately make plans to eat there one last time.

No matter how big or small the crowd is at these talks I’m asked to give, everyone nods in approval as I explain the basic kinds of stories The Spokesman-Review publishes almost everyday. Those things all are true. Most of the people in attendance at these presentations even say the remember reading those stories in our newspaper. They knew they’re based upon facts and acted accordingly.

“Well, what about what the president said and about the media being fake?”

There’s a long history of U.S. presidents hating the media.

Nixon couldn’t stand the Washington Post and swore he wasn’t a crook. Swearing was a big part of Nixon’s life – he had a real toilet tongue. His administration also did everything within its means to discredit and quiet the press. The problem was that the secret tapes of Nixon’s own voice didn’t lie.

The Obama White House would much rather demand to know a reporter’s protected sources than it would sit down for a one-on-one interview with a newspaper reporter. In 2015, a New York Times reporter called the Obama administration “the greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation,” coincidentally helping to make the case another one of the largest newspapers in the country would later call “the least transparent and the most antagonistic toward the media since the Nixon administration.”

Maybe we should go back a little further to show that a president trying to discredit the media isn’t all that new. Check out this quote:

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” That was Thomas Jefferson in 1807. It was tough to decide which Jefferson quote to use, because it is almost impossible to explain just how much he hated the media.

Well, except that Jefferson also understood more than most the role journalism played in a well-informed democracy.

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” Jefferson wrote.

Look, this is hard stuff. Democracy isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work and commitment by “we the people.”

You have to be willing to evaluate things with your own eyes and use your own judgment – which is a great reminder of a lesson many of us learned from our grandparents. When you were younger – probably on a day you had just watched a whole bunch of television – it’s likely that one of your family’s wise elders warned you to not watch so much TV because it would melt your brain. This, in turn, would cause you to be unable to think for yourself … and then you might mindlessly believe whatever you were told by the people on TV.

The irony of that is not lost on me.

After a while, it became obvious to our newspaper’s editors that seemingly half of our readers didn’t trust stories out of the nation’s capital. In 2017, the number of notes and calls that our newsroom received saying we were too liberal far outweighed those saying we were too conservative. We’d talk to them on the phone and realize they were upset about a story from one of our national wire services, but not our local stories.

We did two things.

The first was to invite those people to attend one of our daily news meetings where the editors talk about all of the stories and photos in the next day’s newspaper, how we can make those stories better and more relevant to our readers, what pages they should run on, as well as which stories should be on our front page. When they came to our newsroom and sat through that news meeting, they quickly realized we didn’t care about the politics of a story. In fact, the national stories they were so upset about were rarely even discussed, because we understand our newsroom’s primary mission is to document the living history of our own community.

We weren’t wasting any of our limited local resources on commodity national news that’s available from a never-ending amount of other sources. What makes this newspaper relevant is that we cover this part of the Pacific Northwest. Hometown stories are what make every local newspaper so incredibly relevant and extremely important at this exact moment in our nation’s history.

The second thing we did was make a concerted effort with big national stories that truly needed to be on our front page that those articles be presented in a way that was very specific to our newspaper’s local readers. We didn’t care what the president said or what the Speaker of the House said. We would write these national stories to focus on what our delegation in D.C. said, what our delegation actually did, and what this would mean specifically to us here in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

An interesting thing happened after doing those two things. By the end of 2019, the majority of the calls and emails to our newsroom had switched to being complaints that we were too conservative. More importantly, there simply weren’t as many of those kinds of notes even sent to us.

I remember clearly the first time I watched a local elected official complain on a video that a local story we had written was “fake news.”

At first, I was enraged. Those are fighting words.

Then I started to wonder if maybe there was a part of the story that was incorrect. We sometimes make errors inadvertently. We also quickly correct them on page 4. I searched our archives and pored over every word of the article this politician had called “fake.” I talked with our reporter for the story and our other editors, not letting on why I was asking. I called the sources in the story to make sure they hadn’t been misquoted.

They hadn’t. And nothing else was wrong in the story. All of it was true. There wasn’t a single part that was subjective or incorrect. It was filled with verifiable facts and quotes I had just confirmed.

That’s when I went back to my initial instinct and got angry – I’m talking about the kind of anger that Bruce Banner can channel. Only I can’t turn green. Or get big and muscular. But I was furious.

What this politician had done is called gaslighting. If you don’t know what gaslighting is, you should learn. It’s real.

Gaslighting is when someone or some group does or says things that make others begin to doubt themselves, often making them question their own memories of things they have seen or heard themselves. It’s typically done over a long period of time, using denial and misinformation – as well as other tactics aimed at delegitimizing the source of the story or even something that has happened – that can often make people believe something is simply not true.

In a 1981 psychoanalytical scientific paper that delved into just how powerful a tactic gaslighting can be, the article’s authors explain how effectively “a tendency to incorporate and assimilate what others externalize and project onto them” can be.

None of this is being said to try to tell anyone that what they believe is wrong. But beliefs and truths aren’t the same.

The truth is based on facts.

I’ve been lucky enough to be the editor of The Spokesman-Review for almost four years now. In that time, there isn’t a single instance when we have knowingly published something wrong. When we have made mistakes, we have corrected them. Because the truth matters.

It matters so much that since COVID-19 began to erupt across our country – causing people to stay at home, including keeping us out of our own newsroom – we had the first instance where we literally needed to stop the presses after deadline. Which isn’t easy when there’s no way to get ahold of your pressman after the presses have already started printing the next day’s newspaper.

It wasn’t cool, like it is in the movies. Our editors couldn’t get ahold of anyone in the pressroom and we couldn’t just walk across the street to talk to them because we all were working from home. The phones weren’t being answered. It was stressful. We were panicked. Eventually, we got the presses stopped; the papers that had already been printed were thrown out.

We went through all of that because none of us wanted something that was incorrect going to our readers. To be clear, it wasn’t fake; it was that a portion of a national story had unknowingly, and fairly substantially, changed after we sent our pages to the pressmen to get printed for the next day’s paper.

It used to bother me that our newspapers weren’t sold at the checkout counters at our local grocery stores.

I’m no longer a kid, the check-out line moves much faster at our local markets, and I still love bubble gum. It’s both delicious and fun.

But when you see one of those magazines or tabloids at the register that say Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman are getting divorced – they’re not – or that Brad is making ultimatums to Angelina – I have no idea, but highly doubt it – well, it’s probably for the better that they set our newspaper racks at the front of the store for when you first walk in.

Because we are the real news.

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