Learning the news: Clear and present danger

Without a fundamental change, we are close the day when Americans will no longer value the importance of real journalism, writes Roger Plothow.

In this, the penultimate column of this year-long series of weekly musings on media literacy, I return to a common theme – the very real dangers Americans face as journalism becomes less valued and less practiced.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coined the term “clear and present danger” in a 1919 majority opinion on free speech. Since then, it’s been used by smart people as the title of a book and movie and in reference to everything from politics to food safety. It’s a wonderful combination of words.

Having started graduate school during the writing of this series, I’m now back in the world of theses and abstracts and theories, so I present one here: Without a fundamental change in our current direction, we are a generation or less away from the day when all but a handful of Americans will no longer value the importance of real journalism. Worse, we’re already at a point at which the aims of journalism are utterly misunderstood.

To a large degree, we journalists are to blame. We can be standoffish, and many of us look down our noses at such trivial things as marketing and promotion. We have failed to get our message out, even as the internet – social media, in particular – makes our work appear to be less and less relevant.

We have not been able to halt a crisis of faith in our product. Some of this goes to the embarrassing misbehaviors of people who have purloined the title of journalist without having a clue what the word really means. We have embraced, to a degree, the very implements of our own destruction – social media. We have dumbed down our reporting and plundered our newsrooms.

However, we haven’t just stood by silently as first one, then another generation entered adulthood under the assumption that all information is created equal; that the drivel read on Twitter is just as valuable as information fully vetted by journalists. No, we have sounded warning bells and stamped our feet. We’ve even tried to jump into the very social media cesspool in which many are drowning, in hopes of somehow saving ourselves. It’s not working.

And now, we have a political climate in which open threats against journalists are met with applause and the term “fake news” is so overused that it’s lost its meaning. Locally, a legislator (and university professor) argues that calling out conspiracy theorists who lack a scintilla of evidence behind their claims constitutes bias.

I don’t have an answer to this beyond adhering to the values of real journalism, using whatever bullhorn I find in my hand to sound the warning and providing a little perspective. Odds are, as things now stand, it won’t be enough.

There are some hopeful signs, albeit not many and certainly not enough. And that will be the topic of my 52nd column on this topic next week, after which I’ll give it a rest, at least for a while.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is the second-to-last weekly column in a year-long series on media literacy. He has prepared a 60-minute presentation on media literacy designed for classes, schools and organizations. Email him at rplothow@postregister.com to inquire about having him present to your group.