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Don’t shoot the messenger

When we think about the old adage “Don’t shoot the messenger,” we understand it to mean that the messenger is the bringer of the message, not the creator of that news or situation.

The messenger brings to light the situation, neither creating nor even supporting it.

The messenger brings the message. Which is what newspapers and the media do. They bring the message. They report the news.

Don’t shoot the messenger.

But shooting the messenger, either literally or virtually, is exactly the bulls-eye that the President of the United States is creating in labeling the press the “enemy of the people.” He is inciting violence against the messenger. With his insistence on naming news that he doesn’t like or that isn’t consistent with his own spin “fake news,” he creates an atmosphere in the country that makes the message harder to bring.

It’s also true that newspapers sometimes fall down badly on reporting, with the lead-in to the Iraq War and the so-called “weapons of mass destruction” used to justify it perhaps the most dramatic example. There is absolutely such a thing as news that is inaccurate, or biased. Even the decision as to which stories to cover and which not to cover can have a profound influence on public perceptions. But shooting the messenger is not the solution; it never has been.

Anyone, including the president, who wishes to allege that news is false needs to present their own sources and arguments as to why they believe that to be the case. Corrections, follow-up stories, and letters to the editor are just a few of the avenues that newspapers and readers have when a mistake has been made or something needs clarifying. But stigmatizing the entire Fourth Estate, whose protection was considered so important by our Founding Fathers that they enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The press is not the enemy of the people. It is a foundation of a free society. It is only in a society where people do not have access to accurate news that autocracy becomes possible; casting aspersions on the veracity of the press and inciting the public to harass and threaten the press is a perfect strategy to create such a government. And if anything and everything that is published as news can be stigmatized and dismissed—by any side of an issue—as “fake news”—nothing is left but a war of empty epithets.

The result of the strategy of incitement against the press is that journalists are being harassed at public events, and even shot in their newsrooms. This serious situation then calls for the press—the messenger—to sound the alarm and have a strategy of its own.

One strategy, of which this editorial is a part, is a call to action by The Boston Globe that newspapers across the country write and print on August 16 editorials that challenge and bring to light how very dangerous and destructive it is to unilaterally name news organizations and coverage as “fake news” and call journalists the “enemy of the people.”

Journalists are the people. We are community members who believe that people must have access to accurate information. We are community workers who bring to light the stories of our communities. We are part of a long-standing tradition that protects democracy and makes information available to anyone who wants to pursue it. That is what The River Reporter strives to achieve each and every day: community engagement around civic issues.

The world is a better place when people on all sides of an issue talk to each other. The best solutions come from a diversity of ideas and perspectives.

Naming the press the “enemy of the people” and inciting violence and intolerance against varying viewpoints does not build a just or informed society. It rips the society apart.

The River Reporter is honored to join the growing list of newspapers across the country that are showing solidarity around the need and importance of a free press.

“Don’t shoot the messenger” expresses a truth and is something that we can all agree on.


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