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Armstrong: Phony Attacks on Journalists Undermine a Free Society

Here’s a hilarious joke I heard — you might want to sit down for this one. The Colorado Independent and Westword, among other Colorado media outlets, are phony news organizations! Ha!

Not funny, you say? Tell that to Walker Stapleton, the Republican candidate for governor. He’s the one who came up with the knee-slapper at a Sept. 1 campaign event, as Corey Hutchins of the Independent reports.


Ari Armstrong

Ah, but Stapleton was only making a joke, a campaign spokesperson told 9News, and the candidate has a “demonstrated track record of respect for the press.”

But tarring news organizations broadly as “phony” is no laughing matter. When civic leaders such as Stapleton or Donald Trump unjustly attack the work of journalists as phony or fake, they promote irrational biases against news media and encourage less stable and less scrupulous people to act on those biases. They also weaken America’s moral leadership as tyrants around the world hide behind bogus claims of “fake news.”

Following are some real-world examples of such problems:

* On June 28, a disgruntled man with a shotgun walked into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland and killed five journalists and support staff. As NBC reports, the killer thought the paper had “defamed” him by discussing “his 2011 guilty plea to criminal harassment.”

* Last month, a California man was arrested for allegedly threatening to shoot in the head journalists at the Boston Globe. As ABC reports, the man, echoing sentiments expressed by Trump, allegedly claimed that news media are the “enemy of the people.”

* During the presidential campaign, some people at a Trump rally in Grand Junction screamed at journalists things like, “Lock them up! Hang them all! Electric chair!” (See the New Yorker’s report.)

* Twice I have been threatened over my journalism. Years ago, when I covered a U.S. Senate campaign, someone suggested that, as punishment for my writing, my flesh should be lashed off of my bones. More recently, when I wrote about the presidential primaries, someone posted on Twitter details about my local neighborhood and said I had better run if he ever came across me.

* Tyrants including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, have made spurious claims of “fake news” and the like, as the Atlantic reports.

* Government agents from Myanmar have tried to hide the brutal mass-murders and large-scale displacement of Rohingya Muslims behind spurious claims of “fake news.” The government there recently sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison for researching “official secrets” about a particular mass-murder, as Reuters reports.

Laughter obviously is the wrong response when people “joke” that real journalists work for “phony news organizations.” What’s the right response?

If someone claims that news media generally are phony or fake, the proper response is to point out that smearing an entire category of diverse professionals is wrong.

If someone claims that a particular news outfit is phony or fake, or that a particular story is so, the proper response is, “Put up or shut up.”

Some publications really are phony news organizations, such as Alex Jones’ Infowars. I can say that with confidence because the publication frequently publishes outright lies and has poor standards for verifying claims. Even when Infowars reports facts — and it often does — it frequently omits or distorts the relevant context surrounding those facts.

The difference between a real news organization and a phony one is not that the former is omniscient, infallible or morally perfect. So it is not sufficient to point to a single mistake or even a few mistakes to dismiss a publication as phony.

Four main features characterize real news organizations: They seek seriously to report important facts about the culture and polity, they follow reasonable procedures to vet claims, they promptly and consistently correct the record if they get something wrong, and they do not willfully distort the context of reported facts.

Former state Sen. Greg Brophy was wrong, then, to suggest that the Independent is fake news because the publication once falsely reported that then-Rep. (now Sen.) Cory Gardner had double hip replacements. It was a bonehead mistake, to be sure. But the Independent quickly posted a correction, explaining how it made the error, and that’s all we can reasonably expect.

It is simply dishonest to pretend that journalists who work hard to avoid mistakes and who quickly correct their occasional errors are somehow on par with those who consistently and willfully distort the facts.

I could devote a column or a book to reviewing why the Colorado Independent and Westword are vital players in the state’s media landscape. Here I will mention only a few highlights. Hutchins and Westword’s Michael Roberts are two of the most important voices in the state covering politics and media. The headline of Roberts’ recent article about a state House race largely explains itself: “Alt-Right GOP Hopeful David Reid Ross Drops Out After Racist Blog Exposed.” Westword once earned a Silver Gavel Award for its reporting on Rocky Flats. The Independent’s Susan Greene is a Pulitzer finalist for her work on criminal justice; recently she was unlawfully detained by Denver police for doing her job.

The alternative is not to uncritically swallow everything you read in the news or else to reject the work of journalists generally as fake or phony. Reasonable people and honest politicians instead judge each publication, each journalist, and each article independently in light of the relevant facts.

Come to think of it, that is also how reasonable voters judge politicians.

Ari Armstrong (@ariarmstrong) publishes the Colorado Freedom Report and is the author of Reclaiming Liberalism.