Guest columnist Shaheen Pasha: The public, the press and the power of the printed word

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    Time Magazine’s four covers for the "Person of the Year," announced Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. The covers show Jamal Khashoggi, top left, members of the Capital Gazette newspaper, of Annapolis, Md., top right, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, bottom left, and Maria Ressa. The covers, which Time called the “guardians and the war on truth,” were selected "for taking great risks in pursuit of greater truths, for the imperfect but essential quest for facts that are central to civil discourse, for speaking up and speaking out." TIME MAGAZINE VIA AP

Published: 12/13/2018 9:25:26 AM

Sitting at a car dealership in West Springfield, I expected my conversation with the dealer to tackle lease terms and miles-per-gallon ratios. I never thought I’d be defending journalism over a cup of coffee, surrounded by family sedans and SUVs.

“What do you two do for a living?” the dealer asked me, making small talk as my husband circled a new model on the floor. “My husband and I are both journalists,” I responded.

“Real news or fake news?” she asked, her smile never faltering. I was stunned for a moment, convinced I had heard her wrong. But as the awkward silence grew longer, the question hanging between us, I realized she was being serious.

“How would you define fake news?” I asked her, trying to keep my voice neutral. “Oh, I don’t really know,” she replied, still smiling. “All I know is that’s what most journalists are.”

It is a tough time to be a journalist, and fake news is to blame. Not because journalists are purveyors of so-called fake news. That’s what the politicians would have you believe. Rather, it’s because the term has become so mainstream and intangible that anything that goes against a person’s preconceived notions or beliefs can be dismissed by calling it fake news. And that not only damages the credibility of the entire industry but also dehumanizes the journalists who make up the profession, leading to dangerous consequences.

That’s why I cheered earlier this week when I saw that Time had named a varied group of journalists, targeted for their work and dubbed “The Guardians,” as the magazine’s person of the year. My satisfaction was not out of some sense of self-congratulatory pride in the industry I belong to. It was because I recognize that journalists have never been more important to the functioning of our democracy here in the United States and abroad than we are today.

In explaining the magazine’s decision, Time’s editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal said “democracy around the world faces its biggest crisis in decades, its foundations undermined by invective from on high and toxins from below, by new technologies that power ancient impulses, by a poisonous cocktail of strongmen and weakening institutions.”

I wish he was exaggerating. But the concept of fake news has become a real part of the toxic mix that has increasingly poisoned the relationship between the public and journalists who are entrusted with keeping the powerful accountable. When society loses its trust in its watchdog — or the guardians of the free flow of information, as Time described them — it paves the way for authoritarianism and political manipulation.

Words can shape a person’s reality. As a journalist of almost 20 years, I know how a simple phrase can embed itself into a reader’s psyche. I understand how language can influence a reader’s view of the world. It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously and now impart to my journalism students.

Politicians also know the value of words. And they recognize the power that journalists have in a free society. That’s why the focus on discrediting journalists by lumping us all under the catchy banner of fake news is such an ingenious public relations strategy.

It’s a slippery slope once fake news becomes society’s default association with journalism. People who spread fake news are liars. Liars are bad. People who are bad can’t be trusted. People who can’t be trusted mean you harm. People who mean you harm are your enemies. It’s a domino effect of incendiary logic that’s given rise to a whole society of individuals who increasingly regard journalists as enemies of the people.

I heard that phrase often as a foreign correspondent in countries ruled by authoritarian governments in the Middle East. In those countries, journalists who dared to speak up against corruption or brutality were publicly denounced as enemies. We were rabble-rousers and troublemakers seeking to destabilize the government with our stories. We were agents of chaos, worthy of imprisonment and exile. It was never a term I expected to see tweeted out by the President of the United States about American journalists. It was never something that I expected everyday Americans to accept as truth.

Yet here we are. And the implications of that are truly frightening.

A new report released last week by UK-based human rights NGO, Article 19, found that journalists face more dangers on the job now than they have at any point over the last 10 years. According to the report, journalists are facing a jump in verbal and physical attacks in the current environment, as compared to years past. In 2017 alone, 78 journalists were killed and 326 put in prison for doing their jobs. Of those imprisoned, 97 percent were local reporters jailed on anti-state charges.

And the rhetoric we are seeing out of this administration is only helping to pour gasoline on an already volatile landscape for journalists. Article 19’s report said that world leaders, such as Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, have jumped on the “fake news” bandwagon as a means of discrediting the media in their individual countries and punishing members of the press for their reportage.

Let that sink in. Countries accused of genocide and unspeakable violence against their own people are using the concept of fake news, made popular by this U.S. administration, to mask their atrocities and punish the journalists trying to bring these horrific acts to light.

That should trouble us as Americans.

2018 has been shaping up to be another deadly year for journalists, with 52 reporters murdered as of December. Among them were five staffers at local Maryland newspaper, the Capital Gazette, and exiled Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Both the Capital Gazette newsroom and Khashoggi were featured on the cover of Time. As they should be.

Journalism is often a thankless job, but it is a vital one that upholds the principles of democracy. It’s about time journalists were honored for serving as guardians of a public that often hates them in return.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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