I have been on both sides of the “fake news” controversy. For 27 years, I was a public relations officer for the U.S. Navy. In a curious way, I was the Sarah Huckabee Sanders for, among other commands, the U.S. 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean during the Middle East War of 1973, the subsequent mine sweeping of the Suez Canal in Egypt and, soon after, the only port visit of U.S. warships to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I held news conferences, responded to telephone queries from worldwide media representatives, explained the Navy’s doings to interested journalists and explained media practices and motives to the admirals and Defense Department officials for whom I worked.
On the other hand, in civilian life, I was an everyday reporter, a featured columnist, a college professor of journalism and a research scholar of government-media relations.
As a reporter, I cannot remember any of my newsroom colleagues as being dishonest or biased. We made mistakes, but nothing intentional, and miscues were quickly acknowledged in a “Corrections” sidebar.
I was fortunate to work at a time when “real news” did not compete with “fake news” on the internet. Now, the most outrageous claim can be made on Facebook as fact and reach millions of frequently gullible readers. In my many years of government and media relations, I have only experienced one instance of media shenanigans, and I blame myself for most of that sorry episode.
At the beginning of the Vietnam War, I was a press officer at Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Va. A young local TV reporter had impressed me with his hard work and pleasing personality. I knew that we would soon be announcing a major deployment of amphibious ships from Norfolk to Vietnam. This news would affect hundreds of families and be a major item of national interest. I gave the newsman advance notice, so he could shoot film, prepare his voice-over and be fully prepared for the forthcoming announcement. He, instead, went back to his office and immediately broadcast the information as an “Exclusive — Breaking News” feature. I, correctly, looked like a dunce and never made that mistake again.
After a lifetime of working on both sides of the
government-media divide, I have come to four conclusions. First, the interaction between the government and the media is a healthy, adversarial relationship, which is for the public good. It keeps each institution honest and on its best behavior.
Second, a free press is a great deterrent to unethical behavior by persons in power. On several occasions, I successfully counseled against certain courses of action by observing, “If this ends up in the New York Times, it will be hard to explain.”
Third, the internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, has made the distinction between “real news” and “fake news” more difficult to differentiate, especially for casual readers.
And finally, today’s White House has mastered the use of the internet and social media, especially Twitter, as tools for partisan persuasion. It promotes a mesmerizing mantra of: Believe me, because reality is what I say it is. Anyone who claims otherwise is an enemy of the people. That’s scary.
James Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror.