Brian J. Hunhoff: Flushing truth down an Oval hole

Of the Yankton County Observer

“Captain Jack” Crawford was one of the original Black Hills Rangers. He survived many Old West adventures.

Known as “The Poet Scout,” this is the final stanza of his 1889 poem, “Truth” —

Truth may sparkle like diamonds,
But some men will cast it aside.
Instead they will treasure the mica,
And say to the truth, “Let her slide.”
But truth is the old rock of ages
Upon which our forefathers stood.
Without it there may be corruption,
And with it our lives must be good.

Crawford died 29 years before Donald Trump’s birth, but he warned of leaders embracing false witness. President Trump brings new life to the 2,500-year-old words of Sophocles: “How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there is no help in the truth.”

Our 45th president answers coverage of his easily disproven parade of lies by smearing the press for spreading “fake news.” That was a leading theme of his 2016 campaign, so it’s no surprise to hear “fake news” from the Oval Office. But it’s concerning to see that reckless phrase weaponized by elected officials who ought to know better.

Attacking media gives politicians a handy smokescreen for inconvenient facts, and sells particularly well in red states. But responsible leaders don’t pander to polls while ignoring threats to democracy.

Fewer than one in seven people worldwide enjoy a free press environment, protecting them from authoritarian leaders who would gladly make government our only source of news. We do, and it’s a precious gift.

The sometimes unpopular role of the U.S. press is checking facts, investigating misdeeds and holding the powerful accountable. The Fourth Estate’s goal is the truth, much the same as our courts. Are we now circling a drain where unwelcome court decisions get flushed down an Oval hole as fake justice?
President Trump would have you believe the media’s role is to serve him. Criticism of his erratic words and deeds are reframed as unpatriotic attacks on America. He calls the press, “the enemy of the American people.”

Since his inauguration, there has been an exponential increase in harassment, imprisonment and assault of reporters around the globe. Some of his followers wear T-shirts saying: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

Heed the words of Sen. John McCain: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. Without it, I’m afraid we would lose so many of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

Our founding fathers did not always like newspaper coverage, but they knew a free press was democracy’s best defense. They enshrined that ideal as one of the First Amendment’s five freedoms.

Now we have a president attacking anyone who holds him accountable for anything. He talks of opening up libel laws so “we can sue (journalists) and make lots of money.” He tweets about challenging the licenses of networks broadcasting what he considers “fake news.”

We have questions crying for answers we may not want to hear. Has the American president divided the United States so deeply that sound bites outweigh facts? Does faith in our favorite political flavor matter more than proof? Are we choosing news sources for information or ammunition? What is the effect on our country’s collective self-respect when we knowingly elect a blatant liar?

Casually casting truth aside is a dangerous road. Voltaire said, “Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Brian Hunhoff is a nationally recognized editorial writer based at the Yankton County Observer in South Dakota. He has had opinions on open government and the First Amendment published in all 50 states and several foreign countries. He wrote this piece in recognition of Sunshine Week, designed to annually celebrate access to public information.


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