Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

President Donald Trump speaks appears at a July 31 rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall in Tampa. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
President Donald Trump speaks appears at a July 31 rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall in Tampa. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 16, 2018

It is real news that the Hillsborough County School District said this week it will accelerate testing for lead in drinking water and release the results after the Tampa Bay Times reported testing would take years and that until we asked families weren't told about lead levels that already had been discovered.

It is real news that Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County announced this week it would try to buy back a dozen mortgages, a day after the Times reported the mortgages were sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping foreclosed houses.

It is real news that the Clearwater man who shot and killed a father in a dispute over parking in a handicap-reserved space has a history of road rage, a history the Times first reported and law enforcement cited as the shooter was charged with manslaughter this week in a stand your ground case that has attracted national attention.

Yet from Washington, President Donald Trump attacks the media that provides fact-based, independent journalism and holds the powerful to account in communities around the nation.

Trump calls journalists "the enemy of the American people.'' He regularly refers to "fake news'' and the "fake news media.'' Those assaults by the president cannot be brushed aside as theatrics, particularly when they are embraced by some of his strongest supporters and copied by politicians in Florida and elsewhere. That's why the Tampa Bay Times joins more than 200 newspapers throughout the nation Thursday in a rare, coordinated response to Trump's systematic effort to discredit journalists and independent news gathering.

A free press builds the foundation for democracy. Citizens depend on honest, independent media for accurate information they need about their government, their elected leaders and their institutions. That is just as important in Tampa Bay and in communities across the nation as it is in Washington, and the Times takes that responsibility seriously. To cite just three more examples of how factual reporting informs readers and impacts the community:

• It was real news when the Times reported CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas, the region's leading job placement centers, took credit for finding work for people who never sought their help and approved monthly bonuses for staffers who didn't meet performance goals. The long-time CareerSource president and CEO has been fired, and federal and state investigations are under way.

• It was real news when the Times revealed that the city of St. Petersburg released hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage in 2015-16. After federal and state investigations, the city is spending $326 million to improve the sewage system as part of a consent order with the state.

• It was real news when the Times reported that the Pinellas County School District failed to deliver on promised resources to five foundering elementary schools in predominantly poor, black St. Petersburg neighborhoods. The Failure Factories project in 2015 brought a fresh commitment by the school district to invest in those schools. It also won one of the Times' 12 Pulitzer Prizes.

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The prizes are nice, but our goal is to inform readers and make a difference in our community. Far from being enemies of the people, we live in the same neighborhoods as our readers, eat in the same restaurants and shop in the same stores. Our kids attend the same schools, we get stuck in the same traffic jams and we worry about hurricanes hitting home.

Trump's assault on the news media ignores these connections, and it is having a corrosive effect in Florida. At Trump's recent rally in Tampa, some of the president's supporters directed disturbing anger and verbal attacks toward reporters. Legislators and candidates for governor have dismissed accurate news reports they don't like as fake news. A political consultant called it "fake news" when a Sarasota candidate for the Florida House lied about having a college degree; she dropped out of the race Tuesday and apologized.

Of course, public officials who don't appreciate scrutiny have long attacked the messenger. Supporters of an embattled Pasco County sheriff who was being investigated by the Times in the 1980s distributed bumper stickers declaring, "I do not believe the St. Petersburg Times.'' (The name of this newspaper then.) That sheriff was removed from office by the governor, and the low-tech effort to undermine that reporting sounds quaint in this digital era. A steady stream of tweets about fake news from the president of the United States has a far broader impact.

As Trump attacks established journalism institutions, there is indeed a dangerous proliferation of lies masquerading as news. What started with a tweet by a white supremacist wound up convincing some readers that Hillary Clinton was part of a child sex trafficking ring that used a Washington pizza parlor as home base — and prompted one man to start shooting inside the restaurant. The special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has resulted in indictments of three Russian organizations and 13 individuals. Among the tactics: Spreading false stories on social media.

In such a toxic environment, Trump's declarations undermine not just journalists and news organizations but the communities and democracy we endeavor to serve. It is an attempt to blur the difference between fact-based news gathering, and the lies and propaganda that spread like wildfire through social media. Ultimately, engaged citizens must play the vital role in distinguishing one from the other as they choose their elected leaders and shape civic life. In a commencement speech this spring at Indiana University, Times Chairman Paul Tash reminded new graduates: "Fact or fake? Democracy depends on our ability to tell the difference. Journalism can help. It can be a great civic asset. But the final responsibility rests with us as Americans.''

Without honest, independent journalism, where would citizens turn?