If your mother says she loves you, check it out — inquire, investigate and assess that claim.
That’s a silly exaggeration, of course. Yet when Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, says on national TV that the White House is compelled to “put alternative facts out there,” it’s time to challenge what we hear or read from every source.
That advice comes from Joann Byrd, the most admirable journalist I’ve ever known. The Herald’s executive editor from 1981 to 1992, Byrd later worked as The Washington Post’s ombudsman. A decade ago, she co-chaired the Pulitzer Prize Board. Her nonfiction book, “Calamity: The Heppner Flood of 1903,” was published by the University of Washington Press in 2009.
I called my former boss, who lives in Seattle, to talk about journalism in the Trump era. Just one day after his inauguration, President Donald Trump told an audience at CIA headquarters: “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
About that, the 74-year-old Byrd said, “He’s just flat wrong.”
“Journalists I know get out of bed in the morning to serve the public, and will do anything we can to provide reliable information. I never met a journalist who did not operate on that theory,” Byrd said. When reporters have fabricated information or otherwise lied, “they’ve been fired immediately.”
To Byrd, the notion of alternative facts is a joke. “I cringe,” she said, adding “I hope that’s just going to stay on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Alternative perspectives, yes. Alternative assumptions, yes. Alternative goals, yes. But is the moon made of green cheese or not?”
Someone presenting a different fact may know more about a subject, she said. Journalists can make mistakes, and should correct them. “It’s my job to say I thought it was true. Convince me that you are right,” she said.
During Trump’s first week on the job, there were questions about the truth of information from his White House related to the size of inauguration crowds, the numbers of people who may have voted illegally, the cost of wars in the Middle East and other topics. The New York Times made news for how it wrote a headline Tuesday: “Meeting With Top Lawmakers, Trump Repeats an Election Lie.”
Whether we trust the words of our top leader, Byrd said, we should become better consumers of news.
“This really puts the burden on us. Regardless of who we voted for, regardless of who we believe, beef up our critical thinking and teach our children to be critical thinkers,” she said. “Challenge everything. Ask for evidence. Why should I believe this? Where is it coming from? Who does it benefit? Who does it damage?
“It’s sort of like, ‘If mama says she loves you, check it out,’” Byrd said.
Being well informed means listening to those on the other side of the fence. With polarizing coverage coming from cable outlets such as conservative Fox News and liberal MSNBC, “we don’t listen to people we don’t agree with,” Byrd said. “That’s really divisive.”
Smart people can have opposite points of view, she said. “Listen to people who are not voting the way we’re voting. What can we learn from them?” Byrd said. “Until we have the respect of people on the other side, and they have respect for our point of view, we’re not going to get very far.”
Respect, though, is earned. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s chief White House strategist, is far from earning mine. On Wednesday, Bannon called the media “the opposition party” that should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
There will be no shutting up, not in the United States of America where the First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of the press.
This isn’t Eritrea, where only state media may disseminate news. We’re not in Saudi Arabia, where the government in 2011 amended a press law to punish publication of anything conflicting with Sharia law or encroaching on state interests. Those were among the 10 worst countries for censorship in a 2015 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Byrd believes President Trump doesn’t see the media as serving the public. “I think he sees the media as his media,” she said. “Our job is not to cater to what the White House wants. Our job is to go find out as best we can what the truth is. That’s what we need to do now.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.