Until recently, the word “media” didn’t really have a negative connotation. Sure, there was a contingent that used the phrase “mainstream media” in a derogatory sense, as in, “Don’t trust the mainstream media,” or “The mainstream media won’t leggo my Eggo.” Generally, though, media was just media. It was where you got your news, celebrity gossip and cooking competition shows featuring angry chefs with spiky hairdos. Nobody thought much of it.

Now it’s become a catch-all term for anything that’s deemed unreliable or misleading. President Trump is partially responsible for this. He has declared media to be “the enemy of the people,” and while that would be a great title for a movie about flesh-eating lizards from outer space, it’s not exactly an accurate depiction of what journalism is all about.

His assertion is troubling for a number of reasons.

First, it suggests ignorance of how a professional newsroom actually functions. I remember, barely, being a rookie in the news department. Having worked as a sportswriter for nearly a year, I was initially intimidated at the prospect of writing stories that didn’t involve inflatable balls being hurled at people. One of the topics I’d be tasked with covering was politics, and I wanted to get it right. Politics is serious business. Education doesn’t get funded, parking garages don’t get built, because the blue team scored more touchdowns than the red team. Although it’d be totally sweet it life worked that way.

At a meeting one week early in my run, the reporters hunkered down to discuss our coverage strategy. Our managing editor noted that there was a local Democratic primary debate coming up, and that we should have someone there to cover it. A veteran reporter — who I knew leaned more to the left, politically — chimed in: “OK, but are we going to have someone cover the Republican debate as well?” Unanimously, we all agreed that yes, of course we should.

The reporter then leaned back in her chair, shot me a sideways glance, and smiled. “‘Liberal’ media, right?” she said, and winked.

I suppose I knew, being a regular reader of newspapers, that journalists worked hard to provide accurate information to people. But that was the first time I realized how importantly they take their objectivity. Is there bias in media? Of course there is. Boutique news outlets cater to specific constituencies, cable news channels wear their predilections on their sleeves, and it’s easier than ever to find information that enforces, rather than challenges, a person’s point of view. But when it comes to the rank-and-file journalists out there in the trenches — the “mainstream media,” in other words — the paramount concern is getting things right. Opinions are left to the editorial board; the news section is all about facts. And facts don’t care what your point of view is. They just exist, and without journalists casting a spotlight, they’d remain in the shadows.

Even more disconcerting about Trump’s vehement anti-media stance is what it implies. By labeling anything critical of his administration as “fake news” and sowing the seeds of distrust, he sends the message that only he and his aides can be counted on to provide the real story. You’d think this would be a hard sell for him. He’s made a number of outlandish and easily disprovable claims — that his inaugural crowd was 1.5 million strong (it wasn’t), that crime is up (it isn’t), that bad, bad things are happening in Sweden (debatable, depending on whether you enjoy their meatballs). Every day he seemingly sets a new benchmark for absurdity. Tomorrow he’ll tell the public that Senate Democrats were behind the toxic mutagen that created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

Chillingly, many people would believe him. That’s bad news for democracy. The number one goal of any aspiring dictator is to drive a wedge between the public and the media. That allows them to control the message.

If that sounds alarmist, let me assure you it’s mere prudence. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of a free and unfettered media in keeping governments accountable; it’s why they protected journalists in the first amendment, and why the press is the only industry specifically mentioned in the Constitution. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” And Jefferson’s on the nickel. You don’t get your face plastered on money by being a nincompoop.

To be sure, journalists and the broader media need to get their act together. They’re far from perfect. News outlets, even respectable ones, spend far too much time covering tweets and too little time covering policy. Prioritizing news items is sometimes an issue; on the rare occasions when I visit Yahoo (I’m one of about five people who still do), there’s generally a 50/50 chance that the top story will be about the goings-on of the federal government. The other 50 percent of the time, the centerpiece story usually has to do with sports, movie and celebrity gossip, or viral videos of squirrels who can dance to “Love Shack” by the B-52s. Internet outlets are especially notorious for this dubious prioritization. Items are arranged by what’s popular, not by what matters, and this is no favor to a public that needs to be informed and so rarely is.

But as much as media needs a hard slap across the face at times, its mission is a noble one. And just as it’s the media’s job to hold government accountable, it’s the public’s job to hold the media accountable. That means avoiding news that shows up in social media feeds. It means consuming a healthier ratio of Denzel Washington-to-Washington, D.C. It means rejecting attempts by our leaders to denigrate this Constitutionally enshrined tradition.

If someone flashes you a smarmy grin, spouts factually deficient rhetoric, and punctuates it with the phrase “Believe me,” believing them is probably the last thing you should do. Better to leave the truth-telling to professionals.

Your local newspaper is a good place to start.

— Jeff Lagasse is an editor at a Portland media company — so his stance should hardly be surprising. What IS surprising is that he sometimes slow-roasts marshmallows with a Bic lighter. Tell him how weird that is at [email protected]

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