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Commentary: Fake news or yellow journalism?

By Wes Mader Community Columnist

President Trump calls the news media an enemy of the American people. He’s dead wrong. Without a free press, our democracy as we know it would crumble.

What he could have said more accurately is that far too often those who are influential in the news industry abuse the very privilege that has been extended to them by the First Amendment to our Constitution. With the political bias of many national news reporters and TV personalities being conspicuously apparent, belief that the news media is an independent source of news is minimal. Polls indicating most Americans distrust the news media suggest that the public is more trusting of social media than of national news networks.

Sadly, whether it’s fake news or yellow journalism (a term I first heard 60 years ago), the intent often seems to be to discredit a person, group or organization or, in some instances, to create an eye-popping sensational story. It’s not a new phenomenon, but the existence of fake news was eye-popping to a young man just beginning a professional career 60 years ago.

In 1957, fresh out of college, I went to work as an engineer with Goodyear Aerospace in Akron, Ohio. Goodyear was more than a tire company, having built military airships (blimps) and thousands of carrier-based Corsair aircraft during World War II. One project I worked on was an inflatable fixed-wing airplane that could be deflated, boxed and dropped by parachute to a downed pilot behind enemy lines. After inflation, the pilot could take off and fly to safety. An exciting memory from those early years was seeing test flights of this unusual aircraft (Google the Goodyear Inflatoplane).

With wings that resembled air mattresses, the plane’s usefulness was obviously limited. I can still recall an official asking what the military would do with an airplane that could be shot down with bow and arrow. Nevertheless, when the project was cancelled by the military, Drew Pearson, a popular nationally syndicated columnist couldn’t resist the temptation to fabricate a sensational story.

Supported by false leaks, possibly from Goodyear or Pentagon personnel, Pearson made the claim that Goodyear had developed “a cheap rubberized collapsible missile that could transform every navy ship into an aircraft carrier.” Pearson labeled Navy brass as the villains, claiming they “refuse to admit that their great, costly, floating palaces (aircraft carriers) will ever become obsolete.”

When I read Pearson’s false column in the Akron Beacon Journal on Jan. 12, 1960, I expected the Pentagon to roar back with a rebuttal to Pearson’s lie, but it didn’t happen. I learned a hard lesson. What’s in the news may be false, but those who leak or author it are rarely held accountable. Pearson was frequently guilty of yellow journalism, but millions of Americans gobbled it up. Things haven’t changed much, with millions currently more attracted to sensationalism than to truth.

Today, the Washington political swamp crawls with individuals willing to leak classified information or fiction and rumors in hopes of political or financial gain. I’m appalled by those in government who do it and by those in the media who troll for this stuff and then regurgitate it with a disclaimer that it came from an inside source who wishes to remain anonymous.

Sadly, very few are ever held accountable for the damage they are inflicting on our nation, on the credibility of their own news organizations and on the individuals or groups being attacked. Those who feed the media false or distorted information are as guilty as a journalist who fabricates it.

While most of the fuss about fake news is heard on the national stage, local community newspapers are not exempt. With limited staff, local editors may accept some information without verification, depending upon the presumed integrity of those submitting it. This newspaper has made mistakes, but I believe the goal of the editorial staff is zero tolerance for false news. They regularly annoy me by requiring that I provide evidence to support the facts in my columns, but that’s what they should do.

Here are suggestions for the national news media to regain credibility, and to once again become a force for good in America. They should never publish or air anything that includes unvetted personal accusations, no matter who submits it. They should refuse to print or air disgusting election attack ads that include half-truths. It seems hypocritical that a prominent news service like WCCO Television would run paid-for attack ads that their own reporter (Pat Kessler) judged as false. “Anything for a buck” shouldn’t be the standard for what a news source prints or airs.

Lastly, news outlets should discontinue their high volume reporting of inflammatory stories credited to anonymous sources and stick with absolutely verifiable news.

We as consumers can also have an impact by canceling subscriptions or turning off the channels of those news outlets that won’t clean up their act. The new year would be a good time to start.

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Wes Mader is a former Prior Lake mayor. Following retirement after serving as president of Bowmar Aerospace and Defense in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Wes and his wife Char retired in Prior Lake, purchasing their current home in 1992.