October 20, 2018
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The media is the enemy only if you don’t want to know what your government is doing

Carolyn Kaster | AP
Carolyn Kaster | AP
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with state leaders about prison reform at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Aug. 9, 2018.

President Donald Trump has a right to speak his mind, courtesy of the First Amendment. It gives him the freedom to say, as he has, that news organizations publish “fake news,” that journalists are the “enemy of the people” and “horrible, horrendous people.”

His right to free speech, however, doesn’t make his speech true. It also doesn’t make the consequences of his words any less troubling.

That is why it’s important for journalists to continue to report on the business of the government, and for editorial boards, like this one, to condemn attacks by the president and others in positions of power. News organizations don’t serve governments. They serve you, the public.

They are the only way you know when your government isn’t working as it should. They are the only independent way to know what elected officials are doing. Often, if the government doesn’t like journalists, it’s probably because they’re doing their job right.

Without reporters at this newspaper, you would not know that the LePage administration decimated the ranks of public health nurses, who have a number of responsibilities such as to conduct home visits with at-risk mothers and infants, including drug-affected babies, and help contain infectious disease such as tuberculosis.

The Bangor Daily News’ investigative journalism led to a new law to require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to hire public health nurses. When LePage didn’t follow the law, we told you how he got sued.

Without this newspaper, you would not know that private electricity companies siphoned millions of dollars in above-market rates from hundreds of thousands of Maine customers. Again, BDN investigative reporting resulted in meaningful change. Customers sued Maine’s largest retail supplier, and lawmakers passed a bill to institute new consumer protections that took effect last year.

Without this newspaper, you would not have heard the story of Garrett Brown, who let a reporter chronicle not only his struggle with addiction over two-and-a-half years, but, ultimately, his death by a heroin overdose. His story prompted an outpouring from across the country and in Congress, in addition to grassroots fundraising for 500 kits of overdose-reversing naloxone to be distributed for free in the Bangor region.

Without this newspaper’s reporting on infant mortality, the Maine Legislature likely would not have passed a bill to better understand infant deaths. Without this newspaper, DHHS likely would have gotten away with misspending more than $13 million in federal welfare funds.

We are in the business of publishing information people can use and that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. It is easy to spew hate at journalists, or anyone for that matter. Doing so takes little thought, no expertise and no resources — the exact opposite of what it takes to produce news of importance. When someone cries “fake news,” ask them for their source.

People have studied what happens when communities lose news coverage: When newspapers close, government costs go up. One study found that, in the three years following a newspaper’s closure, the borrowing costs for bonds increased. It’s possible investors consider their investment to be riskier without a watchdog, causing them to demand higher interest rates, which are then passed on to taxpayers.

We have no rosy notion that the assault on the media will end. It was happening long before Trump, and it will continue after his presidency ends. But the trends are worrying: Whether you trust or distrust the media depends highly on your politics, and the divide is growing.

In 1997, 41 percent of Republicans said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media, according to Gallup. In 2017, it was 14 percent. Yes, 14 percent. The trend reversed for Democrats: 64 percent expressed trust in the media in 1997, and 72 percent did in 2017.

The divide is exacerbated by Trump and people like him who propagate myths to fuel their agendas. Blaming the messenger is as old as it is effective.

Facts matter. But they don’t make themselves known. They don’t, actually, speak for themselves. They need people, such as journalists, or yourselves, to say them out loud.

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