The Indiana University commencement address offered Saturday by Paul Tash championed the reasons members of the traditional news media should not be discounted, demonized, ignored or targeted by inflamed rhetoric.
Tash is the chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times, which means he has a reason to praise the work of bona fide journalists. And it should be no surprise The Herald-Times editorial board would endorse his words.
We do so today, not simply for ourselves, but for the sake of democracy as a whole.
Grandiose? Yes. But the pursuit of truth, without fear or favor, is vital to a civil society.
Tash noted his “turn at the podium” honored the proud tradition of journalism at IU and recognized “journalism as an essential foundation of a healthy democracy.” He contrasted two recent examples of “news” stories to make a point.
Our in-state colleagues at the Indianapolis Star doggedly reported on the sexual abuse scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics. The Star’s journalists interviewed people, secured and read documents, checked, double checked and triple checked its information, then published its story.
“Their story was an opening salvo in what would become the #MeToo movement,” Tash said, without overstatement. “Except for those reporters, who knows how much longer that doctor might have escaped punishment, or how many more young women might have become his victims ... ?”
About the same time, unverified and reckless claims suggested a pizza parlor in Washington housed a child sex trafficking ring. The claim picked up steam on social media and went so far as to name Hillary Clinton as one of the people involved. That report, Tash said in his speech, prompted a man to shoot up the restaurant where he thought such despicable things were going on. That man was sent to prison, and the whole story has been debunked.
“It’s tempting to dismiss the man who shot up the pizza parlor as a flake and the story that provoked him as outlandish … except that there is such a thing as fake news, and we discount its influence at our peril,” Tash said. “Another name for fake news is propaganda, and those who crave power will use it to move hearts and minds.”
The propaganda is spread through information dressed up as “news” every day, but also in the political campaigns that shade the truth to discredit those with whom they have policy disagreements.
It’s true, though, that even the best journalists make mistakes.
“Journalism is a human endeavor, so their work will be imperfect,” Tash said. “But the purpose is noble. And tomorrow provides another chance to get even closer to the truth. Other stories come from those who use lies to play upon prejudice and exploit fear. Their agenda is to subvert truth and advance their own influence.”
It’s important to understand the difference.