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County Hall Corner: Bad News

There are five fundamental rights listed in the first two Amendments to the US Constitution:
– Freedom of speech.
– Freedom of assembly.
– The right to petition the government for grievances.
– The right to bear arms.

The one that does not get much attention, however, is the freedom of the press.

I am old enough to remember when journalism was actually presenting facts that were confirmed and not just opinions of what happened or, worse, describing false events. In fact, the ‘heroes’ of journalism in the past were those who boldly printed events or actions that others were too timid or afraid to report.

In my college journalism classes in the early 1970s, we studied heroes such as Upton Sinclair, who, in the early part of the 20th century, exposed the Chicago meatpacking plants as sweatshops, which resulted in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The example in the 1960s was David Halberstam, who was reporting the US government’s false appraisal of South Vietnam’s government, which caused President Kennedy to ask his publisher at the New York Times to transfer the journalist out of Vietnam. Halberstam responded that his job was to report the news, whether or not the news was good for America.

But somewhere along the line, these ethics went south. It could be tracked to the Washington Post and their reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who became so famous they were fictionalized by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 film, “All the President’s Men.” Even that sanitized film showed that these reporters were skating around the facts, creating what today we call a “narrative.”

And so, in the fifty years since then, we have seen journalism as entertainment and even propaganda rather than actual news reporting. There are endless examples that could be cited. Still, the one that has recently ignited my indignation to eleven on a ten-point scale was the BBC newsman who reported that at least 471 people were killed by an explosion that flattened a hospital in Gaza City on October 17th. The very next day, Israel had visible proof that it was the result of an inerrant missile by Hamas themselves that exploded next to the hospital, not even on the hospital itself. This evidence did not get legs; rather, it was just the opposite. News outlets such as AP hung on to the BBC account as it was ‘verified’ by the Qatari state-owned Arabic-language news television network, Al Jazeera.

But the hoax could only hold for so long, and as the weeks went by, everyone had to finally admit that the jig was up. The original BBC reporter, Jeremy Bowen, was confronted with the actual facts in a television interview (on the BBC, believe it or not) that were totally opposite from what he had reported. The explosion was not at the hospital but in the parking lot; there were not 471 dead but less than a dozen, and the missile that did this damage was not fired from Israel but from Gaza itself, which meant the entire incident was caused by Hamas and not Israel at all.

Such facts would shame a normal person, but not BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen. “I don’t regret one thing in my reporting because I think I was measured throughout,” he responded. The interviewer challenged his statement and asked about his description of the hospital building, which was supposedly flattened (which anyone with eyesight would have realized was not true). Bowen’s response to this question was, “Oh, yeah. Well, I got that wrong because I was looking at the pictures, and what I could see was a square that appeared to be flaming on all sides. And there was a, you know, sort of a void in the middle.” (Such eloquence, integrity, and brilliance will probably land Jeremy Bowen a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism this year.)

It is easy to make mistakes when reporting the news, but somehow, I do not believe that our Founding Fathers had in mind what we see reported as ‘news’ today. I used to joke that I never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Unfortunately, I think journalists today have stolen that quote and made it their mission statement.

Fortunately for us living in the Lycoming County area, we are blessed with some outstanding reporters at local news events. At the Lycoming County Commissioner Meetings, I sit next to Pat Crossley, who reports for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Her articles are clear and direct, and she hits the high points that should be highlighted. Another Sun-Gazette journalist, Mark Maroney, sometimes fills in for Pat and covers other public events. He is also a true professional. Both are extremely excellent (and honest) writers.

Another local reporter is Anne Reiner, a journalist/videographer who is trailblazing the next generation of news with her site, She has done features such as those on human trafficking that were as professional as any I have ever seen. She tells the truth and does not pull punches. Anne utilizes the mediums that millennials will best respond to and does it professionally and with integrity. The Anne Reiners of the world give me some hope for the future.

But the news comes in many venues in this day and age, and the moral of this story is that we should all practice an attitude of “readers beware.” Two thoughts to close with — Mark Twain once wrote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” And Ronald Reagan reminded us, “Trust, but verify.”