Fighting fake news

BY ART CULLEN

Someone in a failed former Soviet state might have had a good laugh while cashing a check after posting a fake story about Hillary Clinton and John Podesta operating a child sex slave operation at a Washington, DC, pizzeria. A man walked into the place with a gun intending to free the slaves. Of course, there was nothing of the sort. It was a pizza place. Nothing more. The idiot reported that the “intel wasn’t 100%” during an actual jailhouse interview with The New York Times.

“Fake news” is said to have had a major effect on the last election. Generated in places like Macedonia, these websites draw paid advertising to generate false stories that attract stupid people.

Hillary Clinton got up to give a speech about it. The Facebook executives act very serious indeed. Someone probably is trying to figure out an algorithm that can separate the wheat from the chaff. It all is for naught.

There is only one tried-and-true way to fight fake news:

Subscribe to a newspaper. A printed newspaper.

This is not fake: The editors at The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Des Moines Register, the Sioux City Journal and The Storm Lake Times care deeply about accuracy and fairness. They know that it is only their credibility that convinces a reader to shell out a dollar to get a straight take on the day’s real news. They know that if they can’t get the facts straight regularly they will not be in business for long.

They know that if they are cowed by powerful government or commercial interests they will lose credibility. They know if they spell the name “Schmitt” rather than “Schmidt” you lose credibility. They care about getting the tax levy reported accurately even when the government official does not. They check leads on information through multiple sources. They name their sources almost always.

They went into Vietnam to tell the truth: that we were losing the war. They went into Aleppo to tell the truth: that the rebels were being routed by the Russians. They go to the legislature to find out what the leaders don’t want the public to know just yet. They go to the board of supervisors to find out what the next step in the water quality lawsuit will be, so the taxpayers might understand.

They make mistakes. They fall short. Sometimes they get lazy. Sometimes reporters are frauds. But they are put out in the wash of public scrutiny every day, and can be touched like the man in Macedonia never can be.

This is the real news, the stuff you find on page 5B buried in the public notices of government bills paid. Who gets hired as a teacher next year in Storm Lake. Who can use the Alta fire station for free. What Donald Trump actually did say about the children of Latino immigrants. This is the grease of the wheels of democracy and freedom.

Like everything in life, you get what you pay for.

If you want to graze on your cell phone for free, don’t expect Walter Cronkite. Expect that someone paid to get that message through to you.

If you want the news, if you really want to know what’s going on, if you don’t want to be on the outside of a serious conversation, then let the moths out of your wallet and claim an informed stake of democracy. Buy a newspaper. You will find even the most mediocre reporters trying to give you a semblance of the facts. See if they ring true. If they don’t, write a letter and correct the record. You cannot imagine how gratified the editor is when challenged by a letter writer steeped in facts. Real facts. Not “facts” jumbled up on a website to fit someone’s nocturnal world views.

Newspapers that return to their first principles of accuracy and advocacy for the public good are reservoirs of truth for democracy. We need them now more than ever as gatekeepers disappear in an age of cynicism and confusion.

IN THAT VEIN, a holiday giving notion: First, buy a gift subscription to The Storm Lake Times for someone you know who labors without the light of local information. Second, consider a gift to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which helps journalists, artists, librarians and others with access to information and protection from harassment. Instead of sending that small donation to the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, think this year of a gift on behalf of the most important document in the history of politics: the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The press is under assault, economic and political, across the globe. More journalists than ever are murdered or imprisoned for getting the news. Levels of support for the Freedom of Information Council are tenuous. Some media companies that used to underwrite its operations no longer do so. Some people don’t see how important free and open information is to a vibrant democracy. Iowa has a reputation for open and honest government driven by a strong and independent civic engagement led by more newspapers than any other state. It will be laid asunder by corporate interests that fail to see their obligations or by an indifferent public that depends on someone looking out for their interests. Please consider a gift, no matter how small. Strike a blow for freedom this Christmas.