Op-Ed

Truth, trust and the First Amendment

Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, leaving U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 1971, are played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in “The Post.”
Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, leaving U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 1971, are played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in “The Post.” AP

Perfect timing. Every now and then, the universe supports a coincidence that no one could have planned — a serendipity that speaks unbiased truth in a way that leaves arguments from any perspective wanting.

The timing of Donald Trump’s “fake news” awards with the release of the movie “The Post” is a prime example.

It was predictable that two of America’s finest talents, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, playing the roles of publisher Kay Graham and editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, would bring compelling presentations of the 1971 story of President Richard Nixon’s efforts to prevent the Post and The New York Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.

Few, if any, would have guessed that the 45th president of the United States would categorize the mainstream media as an “enemy of the United States”or create an award to point out those news outlets he sees criticizing himself and his administration. But there it is. Impeccable timing.

The movie, which reveals to a new generation as well as to those who remember what was at stake in 1971, lays it out there. Not one, not two, but four successive administrations, both Republican and Democratic, were not truthful about a war that sacrificed so many sons, husbands and brothers in the killing fields of Vietnam.

Many Americans are walking out of their immersion in that landmark Supreme Court decision which, as Justice Hugo Black stated, supported the First Amendment in which “the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy ... the press to serve the governed, not the government or the governors.”

Our current reality includes U.S. senators accusing each other of lying; nations around the world decrying the racist, defamatory language of the U.S. president; the unprofessional and partisan framings of so-called media conferences by a person unprepared for such a role, and the rapidly escalating lack of distrust among people in the United States.

In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary selected “post truth” as the word of the year. The word of the year, according to Senior Assistant Editor Jeffrey Sherwood, is selected after extensive research about the usage of words and how they reflect the year as a whole.

Where the use of “post” usually means “after,” in this case, says Sherwood in a 2017 interview, it means “irrelevant.”

According to Sherwood, TV host Stephen Colbert scoffed that neither the word nor the concept were new, pointing to his coinage of the term “truthiness.” The difference, says Sherwood, is that “truthiness” suggests that something might be true, but no one knows for sure, while “post truth” says that the truth can be known but it doesn’t matter to anyone.

In late April of 2017, the Annenberg Foundation presented a panel on the state of the news with recipients of the Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in Television Political Reporting speaking.

Jorge Ramos spoke of Cronkite’s words regarding the responsibility of journalism: to reflect reality, not as we wish it to be, but as it really is; to challenge and to question, reminding his colleagues that the legendary newscaster saw those who reported the facts as “allies of democracy and protectors of our freedom.”

In this time of post-truth and “alternative facts,” there seems to be an effort to delegitimize facts.

Journalist Katy Tur, who traveled with the Trump campaign, spoke of posting facts via Twitter and receiving a response that said, “Who are you to decide what the facts are? We (the people) decide the facts.”

We are without a Cronkite, a Bradlee or a Graham at the moment. We are in the middle of a drama that Hollywood can’t begin to match in any believable way, as we reel from one shocking scene to another.

Can we look at the juxtaposition of history and present-day crises and stop long enough to consider the importance of truth, trust and the First Amendment to the survival of our democracy and our world?

“The Post” and its stars are headed for the Academy Awards. Less sure is where we are headed if we fail to heed the moment provided us in the timing.

Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at kcollierm@gmail.com.

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