‘Fake News’ Attacks Backfire as Journalists Dig for the Truth
By Grant Glickson
President, The NewsGuild of New York
The barrage of lies and slander raining down on America’s journalists is having unintended consequences for the perpetrators: Subscriptions are soaring as news organizations pour resources into political and investigative reporting.
“Our mission is clearer than it’s ever been,” New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
Far from discouraging or silencing journalists, the attacks are fueling a renaissance in newsrooms across the country. Morale is going up; talk of job cuts is going down.
The Trump mantra you hear about “the failing New York Times” is laughable. “Every time he tweets, it drives subscriptions wildly,” Baquet said on CNN. “Our digital subscriptions are going through the roof. Even print subscriptions are up. We’re a profitable company, we’re a newsroom that’s hiring. We’re a big, vibrant, important newsroom.”
That vibrant newsroom is filled with Guild members who have been pushing The Times to “invest in us” as contract talks proceed. We hope Baquet’s words mean management has been listening.
Many of our members are among journalists getting national attention for their Trump coverage. They are doing us proud. Not only is their work exceptional, they are unfailingly civil and professional in the face of attacks on their character. They are not taking the bait.
Read their tweets. Watch them in TV interviews. They are fierce advocates for their profession and the First Amendment. But they skillfully defend journalism without being defensive. They debunk lies and hypocrisy with facts, not emotion. As the president rages against anonymous sources, for example, journalists have explained why the practice is essential at times — and that Donald Trump was infamous in the business for being an anonymous source himself.
Even when The Times, CNN, Politico and other major news organizations were barred from a press briefing on Friday — an unprecedented blackballing — the reporting was balanced. Stories noted that other credible journalists were allowed in and recalled a similar, though more minor, attempt by the Obama administration to punish Fox News.
Honestly, staying so cool and collected under fire seems like a journalistic superpower to me. I know firsthand how committed they are to truth and fairness. To hear them degraded and demeaned as “disgusting liars,” purveyors of “fake news” and most shockingly “an enemy of the people” is sickening. As their advocate, as president of their union, I’m not going to shy away from saying so.
It’s heartening to see these ugly attacks backfire. The Times, for example, added 276,000 digital subscriptions between the election and the end of 2016. And readership keeps growing. The NewsGuild-represented Washington Post reports a similar subscription boom, and a flood of donations is funding investigative work at nonprofit journalism organizations.
A new Quinnipiac University poll is also encouraging. While Americans may not be happy overall with the “mainstream media,” they think it’s more credible than President Trump. Asked whom they trusted to tell the truth on important issues, 52 percent chose the media. Only 37 percent picked the president.
But we’ve still got a mountain to climb. Too many Americans believe Trump’s outrageous rhetoric and some are loudly cheering it. From alt-right blogs to social media and rallies, our members and other journalists have become targets of unhinged hatred, even threats of harm. Minority journalists are being bombarded with racial slurs and racist taunts. Their tormentors fail to understand that they stand to lose as much as anyone else if First Amendment freedoms are eroded.
Gene Weingarten, a Pulitzer-winning writer at the Washington Post, summed it up perfectly when he tweeted last week, “It is journalism's difficult job to let the American people see that Trump/Bannon's war on the media is really a war on the American people.”
The New York Times took a bold step in that direction on Oscar night, spending $2 million for a TV ad about what truth is. It concludes, “The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”
Guild members and journalists everywhere are digging for the truth with vigor. I have confidence they will find it. But will Americans believe it? The future of our democracy depends on the answer.
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