Have you heard of Ida Tarbell? In 1903 she wrote a series of pieces for McClure’s magazine about the monopolistic practices of the Standard Oil Company under the ownership of John D. Rockefeller. As a result of her investigative reporting, the government sued the company, and the U.S. Supreme Court found Standard Oil to be in violation of antitrust laws. The monopoly was busted.
What if Donald Trump had been president then, and accused McClure’s of publishing fake news?
In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote about the Chicago meatpacking plants — specifically, the filth and corruption and unsanitary conditions imposed on immigrant workers. His work led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906.
What if Donald Trump had been president then, and accused Sinclair of reporting fake news?
In 1953, Murrey Marder, a reporter for The Washington Post, started covering Sen. Joe McCarthy’s accusations of espionage involving army personnel in New Jersey. Marder’s investigative reports revealed that all of the accusations were false, and the men were exonerated.
What if Trump had been president then, and accused Marder of creating fake news?
From 1962 to 1964, newsman David Halberstam reported from Vietnam, challenging the government’s claims of victory over the enemy. President Kennedy was so outraged that he tried to get The New York Times to pull Halberstam out of Vietnam. But he stayed, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, and his work led to more reliable reporting from the war zone.
What if Trump had been president then?
In 1969, Seymour Hersh, a reporter for a tiny news outlet known as Dispatch, exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and its subsequent cover-up. The story was picked up nationally, and Hersh won a Pulitzer in 1970 for his reporting.
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, leaked thousands of pages of internal memos prepared by the Pentagon about the covert origins of the Vietnam conflict. The papers were published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, leading to the end of the decades-old war. President Nixon ordered the newspapers to stop publication of any of the Pentagon memos, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the press.
In June 1972, five men were arrested for burglarizing the Democratic National Committee office at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. The whole affair smelled bad, and two pit-bull reporters from The Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, grabbed hold of the story and wouldn’t let go. They and their newspaper eventually brought down Nixon’s presidency. Some 40 administration officials were indicted, Nixon resigned in disgrace and The Post won the 1973 Pulitzer for investigative journalism.
In 2002, The Boston Globe wrote stories exposing the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston archdiocese. More than 250 members of the clergy were accused of abusing minors. The newspaper won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2003 for revealing the cover-up by the archdiocese, and the story of the investigation became the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight.”
No one at The Globe imagined that their investigative reporting would lead to a global crisis for the church that continues to this day.
What if a leader of the church had tried to sweep away the accusations of pedophilia as “fake news”?
In 2013, according to the Brookings Institute, The Post and The Guardian published stories about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of American citizens and foreign officials. Their source was Edward Snowden, a former NSA analyst who said he was acting out of conscience. Both papers won Pulitzers for their reporting.
The corrosive concept of fake news has struck deep roots in the dark soil of the Trump White House. When newspapers accurately reported the size of the crowd at his inauguration, he called the news “fake.” When they said there was chaos in the West Wing, he said it was media lies. As newspapers gather compelling evidence of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the president claims it’s all bogus.
We’re in the midst of a perfect storm, comprising evidence of Russian interference in our election, possible complicity by Trump operatives and a president who’s lying to the public and calling out the press as an “enemy of the people.”
This cannot stand.
I’m counting on the perseverance and integrity of the investigative reporters who follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein and Marder and Tarbell. The new muckrakers must not give up. They must not be intimidated, and the great newspapers that stand behind them must go to the wall to uncover the truth.
A free press and free speech are pillars of this great experiment known as American democracy. If responsible media outlets lose their credibility, those pillars will fall and topple the house.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.