EDITORIAL: In defense of facts

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Journalism’s oft-repeated mission statement is to “seek truth and report it.”

Donald Trump has spent much of the early days of his presidency attacking journalists across the country for missing the mark. That, of course, is the president’s right, and while his vitriol on the subject has been unbecoming of the leader of a democratic country, the debate over whether the press is properly doing its job is roughly as old as the press itself.

More concerning is what feels like an assault by Trump and others on the mission of journalism itself — rejecting the truths and facts that reporters uncover.

Here’s one example: in mid-January, CNN reported that intelligence officials had shown then-President Obama and then-President-elect Trump classified documents — based on research done by Trump opponents — that said Russian operatives were claimed to have compromising information about Trump. That, by all accounts, appears to be true: those documents were presented to the two leaders. As for whether any Russians actually have compromising information about President Trump, CNN said it didn’t know and, because it couldn’t independently verify the allegations, it wasn’t going to report the unverified details within the documents.

In other words, CNN published what it knew to be true and did not publish what it couldn’t verify. Frankly, it seems like a responsible approach.

But Trump immediately blasted CNN as being “fake news,” a phrase he appears to be defining as “any news I don’t like.”

Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had spoken with a Russian envoy about U.S. sanctions before Trump took office — then wasn’t forthright with Vice President Mike Pence and others about those conversations; Trump subsequently asked for Flynn’s resignation, citing an erosion of trust, and in his letter of resignation, Flynn acknowledged he’d given Pence “incomplete information.”

Despite all that, Trump took time during a Friday speech to accuse the Post of being part of the “fake news media” and asserted that their paper’s nine sources for the story were made up.

“The story led directly to the general’s dismissal as national security adviser,” Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron noted in response. “Calling press reports fake doesn’t make them so.”

“Fake news” was a term created to describe stories that are completely made-up. For example, a story on www.DefinitelyALegitimateSite.info.co claiming that Sen. John Public just switched his affiliation to the Communist Party, when Sen. Public is actually still a Republican, would be fake news. These “news” stories generally come from people who know they’re spreading bad information, but do it anyway, either to generate web traffic and make money or because they take joy in deceiving people.

Love them or hate them, trust them or doubt them, that is simply not what journalists do.

But, likely because trust in the mainstream media is so low — in some cases, deservedly so — we seem to have somehow reached a point where factual reporting can be refuted not only with additional information or context, but also with “alternative facts.”

The concept of an “alternative” fact, at its core, is a suggestion that there really isn’t any truth, as every piece of information is basically an opinion that can be replaced by another equally valid opinion or piece of information. Facts, now, become partisan. For example, someone’s belief as to how many people attended President Trump’s inauguration (which, frankly, isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things) apparently hinges on a person’s political leanings.

Of course, when we say that truth matters, that goes both ways. Just like the people they cover, news outlets and reporters get things wrong; they can misconstrue things; they can be guilty of pushing an agenda.

But we’d argue that what’s most important — much bigger than an individual mistake — is an overarching commitment to the truth, wherever it leads.

We take that seriously at this paper. We appreciate it when people take the time to tell us when we’ve messed up — and we want to set the record straight when that happens. (For example, you can read a correction on Page 7.)

Every single news consumer — from the president right on down — should scrutinize what they’re reading or hearing for both fairness and accuracy. And it’s naive to think that everyone will agree on what’s fair or what’s the full story.

But we’d hope we can all agree on starting from facts, letting them fall wherever they may, and going forward from there.

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