Election 2016: Truth in the post-facts era or why we still need journalism

I’ve been covering elections and politics in one way or another for the better part of 20 years. I’ve seen sexual assault allegations on the campaign trail, mistresses in the Governor’s mansion, bribes, and tax evasion — and that was just Gov. Jim Gibbons! I’ve done candidate profiles of everyone from the school board to legislative and gubernatorial candidates. More than once I was personally responsible for the unceremonious end to a candidate’s campaign, which is awkward when you run into their campaign manager at your favorite restaurant. I’ve interviewed Vice President Al Gore, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton (twice). I even got a sunburn waiting outside a tony gated community trying to get an interview with Vice President Dick Cheney. (And I still blame him for that sunburn!)

All of this is to say I’ve seen a lot in two decades, but I daresay I’ve never seen an election cycle like this. I’ve never seen a political climate more charged with acrimony. I’ve never seen an electorate so violently opposed to the other side. It makes me long for the almost lovable gaffes of former President George Bush or a Howard Dean yowl. Those elections feel quaint now. Those stakes seem lower — and we were at war back then.

I happened to read both Katy Tur’s first-hand account of being in Donald Trump’s campaign press corps, My Crazy Year with Trump, and the Arizona Sentinel letter from its president, Mi-Ai Parrish, over the weekend responding to death threats after the newspaper endorsed a democrat for the first time in its history. Both of these stories are by women who spoke of getting death threats, of fielding constant threats of bombing or murdering journalists.

To the anonymous caller who invoked the name of Don Bolles — he’s the Republic reporter who was assassinated by a car bomb 40 years ago — and threatened that more of our reporters would be blown up because of the endorsement, I give you Kimberly. She is the young woman who answered the phone when you called. She sat in my office and calmly told three Phoenix police detectives what you had said. She told them that later, she walked to church and prayed for you. Prayed for patience, for forgiveness. Kimberly knows free speech requires compassion.

I admit, my eyes welled up. How did we get here? How has it come to this?

It shouldn’t be dangerous to tell the truth or to be a journalist. It shouldn’t feel more dangerous at a campaign rally than in a war zone.

Then again, this is nothing new. Remember Lucy Flores? That was 2013.

I myself have fielded threats of violence and death for most of my career. I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in the Las Vegas CityLife newsroom and a man called me to say I deserved to be raped and that I should be careful walking to my car. That was 2005. And it was not the first time that happened to me. When I was a lowly news clerk and obit-writer at the Corvallis Gazette-Times, a man called me to say that if he ever saw me he was going to beat “the femininazi right out” of me and put me in my place. That was 1999.

People like to blame the internet for the rise in hate-mongering and threats of violence. I think the number of people who think in such dark ways remains constant, only the mechanism to disseminate their propaganda and bile changes. My mother worked in radio for 18 years, long before the internet was available to the masses and news came off the wire from giant teletype machines that were constantly humming and spewing paper. She had a stalker who threatened to kill her because he couldn’t have her. He was arrested standing right across the street from the radio station while she was on the air. That was 1989.

Still, there’s no denying that the fever dreams of those who relish violence are constantly stoked these days. Everything’s a dog whistle now. And everyone has their chance to type angrily into the void right from the buzzing mini-computer in their hand. I’m not immune to dashing off a hasty response on social media. We’re all guilty.
What gets to me more than the violence is that we are in a post-facts era.

It’s been 11 years since Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” as a satirical jab at the pundits posing as journalists on 24-hour cable news channels. In that time an entire generation has been raised on the bait-and-switch. Nobody can tell the difference anymore between fact and opinion. Anything is true as long as it feels good — the very essence of truthiness.

As billionaires keep scooping up news companies and poisoning the well of the public trust, there is hardly anyone left anymore who can objectively hold a foot to a fire. Good journalists are muzzled into obsolescence and eventually leaving the craft all-together. The loss of institutional knowledge — the stuff people like me know about their beats because they’ve been covering it for so long — is out-paced only by the loss of integrity at outlet after outlet. (Remember, we’re barely in the Internet Age. The bulk of my work was never online or if it was, it’s gone now. There’s still a lot in this world that cant be googled.)

This post-facts era makes logical arguments and debate almost impossible. Whether it’s the liberal anti-vaxxers who dismiss decades of scientific research and demonstrable evidence as corrupt, or it’s the conservative climate-change deniers who view facts as beliefs, the result is the same. Some time after Watergate destroyed the public’s trust and before Sen. Ted Stevens called the internet a “series of tubes,” people lost all faith in facts. Everything from the shape of the earth to what constitutes a vegetable is chalked up to belief now. In this post-facts climate, I guess it’s only natural that those who go with facts over gut would become iconoclasts or obsolete.

We’re in a grand experiment now. What will happen to our communities and electorate when there is no one watching the powerful? No one asking the tough questions? No one taking the time to slog through reams of government reports to find the smoking gun? What kind of politicians will get elected? How well will our schools and hospitals be funded? Will anyone put pressure on those in power to abide by EPA regulations or food safety at restaurants? A lot can happen when no one is looking.

People act like journalism doesn’t work, so we don’t need it. For generations we’ve reaped its benefits and taken it for granted that on the whole it would always be there. I think we’ll all miss it when it’s gone fallow for too long.

The work of journalism — working every holiday and long nights, missing family time, being reviled in almost every corner of society — is hard. It takes sweat equity. It takes endurance. It takes patience when everywhere you turn there is nothing but slammed doors, roadblocks, and red tape. It is thankless work. On even your best day, someone is mad at you. It can make you question why you sacrifice so much for so little in return. (It’s certainly not the pay that keeps you going.)

And yet, I don’t know any journalist who doesn’t love it. (And every former journalist I know has days when they miss it so much it hurts.) The thrill of the hunt for truth is intoxicating. Getting a scoop is the best high I know. And the experiences are as wild and varied and thrilling and scary as, well, only journalism can be. More than once, I’ve been offered free tattoos from tattoo artists. I’ve hiked miles in the desert. I’ve been at the bedside of a cancer patient breathing her last breath. I’ve chased after powerful men in dark suits, refusing to be intimidated. I’ve found the smoking gun in the stacks of banker’s boxes of mind-numbing reports. I maintained my composure when I was standing in the freezing cold on a Christmas tree lot and the owner suddenly went into a racist diatribe about Mexicans. And I did all of that because I love my community. I did it because I believe in my heart of hearts that the truth — the kind that is backed up by facts, not feelings — is the most powerful thing of all.
And despite how loudly the fear-mongers shout, I believe the silent majority agrees with me. This isn’t about parties or ballot measures. This is about what kind of people we want to be. The stories we tell and the stories we share reveal what we matters to us. So what matters now in the post-facts era? What do we believe? Where is the line that shall not be crossed?

I know that most people, even those who don’t like each other, can sit side-by-side without resorting to threats of violence. I’ve seen it while sitting in the press box during hours and hours (and hours) of debate and Roberts Rules of Order at government meetings of all kinds. I’ve seen it when I interview a politician who knows this blog and knows my personal politics are the exact opposite of theirs (and whom I might have even called out by name a time or two), and yet they still treat me with common courtesy and respect. And I’ve seen it in this last, exhausting month of this election. People are posting how much they are tired of the shouting and they just want it all to be over. I agree.

Unfortunately, no matter who wins in November, there will be shouting and vitriol. I realized the other day that no matter if Hillary or Trump wins, I’ll cry on Election Day. Either I’ll cry because my candidate won or because my candidate lost. And then it hit me that all of this won’t be over on Election Day. No race that has been this ugly and divisive will go quietly. It will be like the Bill Clinton years or the George Bush years — filled with bitter fighting the whole way through, regardless of which party is in power. We could really use an Abraham Lincoln — someone who can bridge the gulf between us — right about now.

It’s exhausting. It also feels like the best possible time for facts and reason to make a comeback. With any luck, we’ll still have some journalists left who are brave enough to do just that.

Follow me on twitter @TheSinCitySiren and on instagram @emmilybristol.

Photo credit: Emmily Bristol

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