Every week on the front page of the newspaper, where I serve as managing editor - the Johnston County Sentinel in Tishomingo, Oklahoma (https://johnstoncosentinel.com) - we run the following famous quote from our third U.S. President and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson:

“The press is the best instrument for enlightening the mind of man, and improving him as a rational, moral and social being.”

We selected that particular quote as our mission statement, because we believe that it represents the noblest expression of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they provided for what has come to be labelled as “the Free Press.” 

But this mission can only be successful when the Free Press does its job correctly. 

Unfortunately, all too often these days that job is NOT being done correctly. But it’s not the Free Press’ fault - at least not entirely. 

Because the sad fact is that the “Free Press” as it exists today rests primarily in the hands of large conglomerates who care more about the Almighty Dollar than they do about the sanctity of the First Amendment. They’ve taken the business model of “giving the public what it wants” to an unhealthy - and even dangerous - extreme.

People have a tendency to seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. But it has gotten worse during my lifetime, thanks in no small part to a cumulative, decades-long campaign of open antagonism towards the press that began in the wake of the Watergate affair by certain individuals who saw the Free Press - as exemplified by the work of Woodward and Bernstein -  as a danger to their cause. 

Over time this grew into a movement in which people became less interested in the concept of news as information, and more interested in the concept of “news” as something that merely backs up their pre-existing biases, prejudices and narrow-minded world views - and, ultimately, to Donald Trump’s ridiculous labeling of the American Free Press as “The Enemy of the People.”

All this came to mind while I was at home watching TV the other night and happened to see an ad for this new “SmartNews” app. The ad began with a fellow saying, “I was only watching news that I agreed with.”

Well, there’s the problem with today’s society in a nutshell.

This guy, like so many others in America today, is confusing NEWS with OPINION. 

News isn’t something you “agree with.” News is (to quote the definition from the dictionary I have right here beside me) “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events... informal information not previously known to someone.”

If a newsperson - whether it be on TV or radio or in print - is injecting their personal views into their reporting, IT’S NOT NEWS! 

One of the things that I was taught in journalism 101 was that one should not editorialize when reporting the news. That’s what editorials and personal opinion columns (such as the one I write) are for: to offer some commentary on events in the news, SEPARATE from the news reports themselves. A place where the commentator can offer his or her views, if so moved, without the news report itself becoming biased. With the understanding that the public is being left to make up its own mind about said topic.

That’s why I have to laugh every time I hear people who identify themselves as regular viewers of Fox News rail against “fake news.” That’s all Fox News is! Opinion, disguised as “news reporting.”

We used to call that “propaganda.” And we used to recognize it as a bad thing. 

What happened, America?

And no, Fox certainly isn’t the only one guilty of this - but, yes, they are by far the worst practitioners. I’ve seen “news reports” on Fox News that are straight out of the Goebbels Playbook. (For those of you who aren’t being taught this stuff in school anymore: Paul Joseph Goebbels was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest associates and the Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.)

Consider the following Goebbels quotes:

“If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.”

“A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.”

“This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it.”

“The essence of propaganda consists in winning people over to an idea so sincerely, so vitally, that in the end they succumb to it utterly and can never escape from it.”

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

Sound familiar?

It should. It’s been standard operating procedure at Fox News ever since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes gave birth to the little monster back in 1996.

And despite the occasional accusation otherwise, I can tell you that I for one have always worked very diligently to keep any personal opinions and biases I might have OUT of the news stories I write. 

Sure I have them, just like everyone else. But when I feel those opinions are worth sharing I save them for my column. The proper place for an opinion is in an opinion column, not in a news story. There are a number of so-called TV and Internet “journalists” these days who, either out of laziness or ignorance, do not make that distinction. 

Let me see if I can put the difference between “news” and “opinion” into terms a child can understand: 

If I as a reporter am covering a city council meeting in Everytown USA and I report that the mayor has asked the council to consider passing an ordinance requiring all children under the age of 5 to be kept on a leash when in public, that’s news and it should be reported on Page 1.

If I write that the mayor is a squeeming doody-brain for coming up with such an idea and would be doing the world a tremendous favor by placing his head in a Cusinart and pushing for “puree,” that’s OPINION and has no place in the aforementioned Page 1 story. 

That’s what this column is for. And that’s where I’ll express such sentiments - if and when I feel the need to do so.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for news that you “agree with,” you’re not looking for news at all. You’re looking for opinions that support pre-existing prejudices and allow  others to do your thinking for you. 

And if that’s the case, you need more than an app.

You need a reality check.

(Copyright © 2019 by John Allen Small)