When it comes to finding out the truth of what is going on and reporting on it, which we consider our job, the challenge is different this year.
In past years, we have marked the start of Sunshine Week by writing about obstacles to the collection of government information — mainly the failures of state, federal and local officials to abide by laws on freedom of information and open meetings.
Those obstacles remain. Many government officials continue to flout their ignorance of or lack of concern for laws that require them to make public information available to the public and to conduct public business in public meetings.
But we are facing even more daunting challenges this year — the rise of skepticism about the trustworthiness of the news media, the effort by politicians to delegitimize news operations for their own purposes and the use of falsehoods by the Trump administration to push its agenda.
The lying by President Trump and the people who work for him falls into two broad categories: falsehoods about what happened and falsehoods about the reporting on what happened.
So, in one of the administration’s first big lies, Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted the crowd at President Trump’s inauguration was huge, even though it was smaller than at previous recent inaugurations; and then, when news outlets reported the truth, Trump officials said they were lying.
It’s easy to dismiss this sort of lying as clumsy and obvious. But the lie created a touch of confusion — a sliver of doubt — and that was enough to encourage those who wanted to believe it.
And the second lie — that the media reports were false — gave the believers a slogan: Fake News! Shouting “Fake News!” made people feel they were standing up for a cause — fighting the media that was forever trying to feed them stories they didn’t like.
From that beginning about a year ago, we have continued down the dangerous path of replacing facts we don’t like with falsehoods we do. The roots of this flowering of falsehood stretch back to long before Donald Trump ran for president. He has simply been brilliant at capitalizing on the public’s craving to be told what they want to hear.
We have seen local politicians copy this approach, and we have called them out on it — once with a front-page editorial. Thankfully, both of those politicians are no longer in office.
The effect of all the half-truths and non-truths mixed in with a bit of truth here and there has been to make the work of journalists much harder. Reporters have always relied on trust to do their jobs — the trust of subjects that what they say will be accurately reported and the trust of readers that stories are factual and fair.
We and hundreds of other legitimate news operations continue to do our jobs as we always have, by interviewing all sides, by gathering information from reputable sources and by revealing to readers what we have and how we got it. And when we get it wrong, we own up to it and run corrections.
The concept of the fourth estate is that the press serves as a counterbalance to traditional centers of power such as government and business. Its authority is derived from its credibility with readers, which is based on facts.
But it becomes impossible to fight political authority or financial power with objective truth if no one agrees on what the facts are. Abuses of power then become far easier to carry out.
So for Sunshine Week this year, rather than harping on access to government documents or the necessity of following the Open Meetings Law — both of which are important — we are going to make a plea for respect for evidence and truth.
We wouldn’t run our criminal justice system on opinions. We wouldn’t let criminals off if their lawyers yelled “Fake News!” loudly enough.
We have to hold onto our respect for facts and the truth and resist the temptation to believe only the stories that fit our biases. This year, it is the press itself that is under siege, but our country has never needed it more.