The Fourth Estate in fake news era


The 30th anniversary of the firebombing of The Riverdale Press prompted an invitation from the editor for me to submit an editorial on the importance of a free press — an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Our free press is challenged on multiple levels, and it needs the support and protection of the American public more than ever.

Today, trust in media is at an all-time low. But “media” today is a catch-all term that includes cable curmudgeons, talking heads, blogs, digital information aggregators, tabloids, magazines, radio, television and newspapers. Hardly a level playing field.

In days gone by, most Americans trusted the media.

But in those days, the media consisted of the local daily newspaper and a few highly respected television anchors (think Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, etc.)

The press makes things more difficult for those who govern. Accusations of fake news are shorthand for reporting the government doesn’t agree with.

But accusations of fake news are more than heckling — the constant battering if the press’ credibility has created doubt, and citizens question the trustworthiness of the mainstream media more than ever before.

The tension between government and the press is the result of the government’s efforts to sidestep and avoid press coverage, and the press’ efforts to examine, hold accountable and report on government.

Journalists never had to take the time to help the public understand how they do their jobs, but it’s imperative they do so now.

Reporters are watchdogs, not cheerleaders. Their job is to investigate, fact-check, expose, inform, encourage debate, and educate.

Media bias or perceived bias is another contributor to distrust. But is it a based news media or biased readers?

Bias isn’t new, and it isn’t avoidable. Reporters and readers arrive at every story from different entry points. We all see things through our own lens. We’re inclined to believe — or not — before we start reading or writing.

Sometimes bias is intentional, and sometimes not. Again, in days gone by, newspapers were named the Democrat, the Republican, and the Independent. Bias proudly displayed.

The point is that tension between the government and the press, and threats against journalism aren’t new — they’ve existed since the colonists came to America.

Those colonists guaranteed press freedom when they wrote the First Amendment — but no right is truly guaranteed. Like other things worth saving, it needs protection.

When The Press was firebombed, the owners and editor were dumbfounded by the outpouring of support from citizens who regularly disagreed with their editorial page. I hope the reaction would be the same today, because warts and all, the public benefit of a robust and independent free press can’t be overstated.

The author is the executive director of the New York Press Association, the trade association for 721 newspapers published in New York.

Michelle Rea,