Rob Christensen

‘Fake news’ attacks are nothing new, but trust in media has fallen

Community Forum examines 'fake news'

A video compiled by WTVD, shown at a Raleigh forum examining “Fake News – the search for credibility,” includes clips of President Donald Trump shouting “fake news” at the media and interviews with people on the street about how much confidence th
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A video compiled by WTVD, shown at a Raleigh forum examining “Fake News – the search for credibility,” includes clips of President Donald Trump shouting “fake news” at the media and interviews with people on the street about how much confidence th

Media bashing has a long history.

The late Sen. Jesse Helms made his political bones attacking what he called the liberal media, using many of his 2,800 commentaries at WRAL-TV from 1960 until 1972 to rake The News and Observer and other news organizations over the coals.

That is what he was hired to do by A.J. Fletcher, WRAL’s conservative owner, who thought the Raleigh newspapers, “owned by the same family, headed by Jonathan Daniels, former assistant to President Truman, have been so far to the left that they barely escaped being behind the Iron or Bamboo curtains.”

Helms spent years trying to convince listeners that communists were behind the civil rights movement and the liberal media refused to report the facts, and instead stirred up happy, contented black people. He didn’t call it fake news, but he might as well have.

Another Fletcher favorite was I. Beverly Lake Sr., who ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 1960 on a segregationist platform against eventual winner Terry Sanford.

Gene Roberts, a political writer for The N&O who went on to be editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and managing editor of The New York Times, remembers covering a Lake rally in Lumberton.

Lake singled out Roberts at the rally. The editor of the Robesonian got wind of trouble, hustled him out of the rally and hid him in his storefront office as a group of seven or eight men with bricks in their hands went looking for Roberts. The local editor later convinced the police chief that it wouldn’t look good for Lumberton to have an N&O reporter killed, so he provided two police cruisers that accompanied Roberts to the Fayetteville city limits.

While media-bashing, especially among conservatives, has been around for a while, it has clearly entered a new phase.

Gallup polling suggests decreasing trust of the American mass media between 1998 and 2016.

Trust dropped among independents from 53 percent to 30 percent and among Democrats from 59 percent to 51 percent. Republican trust dropped from 52 percent to 32 percent between 1998 and 2015.

What is particularly striking is that Republican trust in the media fell to 14 percent in 2016 – a huge shift in public opinion for one year.

Media critic Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, argues that there is a deliberate, structured effort to undermine journalists. He likens it to a pyramid.

At the base of the pyramid is the army of trolls and activists who shout down any story to which they object. Sometimes there are personal threats – particularly if the journalist is Jewish, Hispanic or female.

In the middle of the pyramid are such figures or institutions as Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Breitbart, and Fox News, Rosen said at a recent talk I attended at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York.

At the top, there is President Donald Trump, who has declared the media “the enemy of the people.”

There is a broad decline in trust in many of our institutions – not just the media.

Rosen argues that “the attacks on the journalists are actually part of a larger problem in which academics, civil servants, cosmopolitans, experts, globalists, and professionals of different kinds are all slowly being brought under this category.”

The news has clearly changed – as was discussed at a community forum Wednesday night sponsored by The N&O and WTVD.

Because of the power of the Internet and cable TV, people now can watch presidential news conferences themselves, examine original source documents and compare information from multiple news sources.

They can watch as news unfolds, 24/7, rather than waiting for the 6 p.m. news or the morning newspaper.

But the Internet is also like the old supermarket tabloids on steroids – filled with quackery, malicious gossip, invention and lies.

I do know what fake news looks like.

When I worked as The N&O’s Washington correspondent back in the early 1980s, I shared a small office with the correspondent of The Daily Mail, a giant British tabloid.

My office mate’s predecessor, I was told, had reported that there was a craze in Washington of people wearing top hats. When his boss flew in from London and noticed the absence of top hats, he was replaced. Now that was fake news.