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Parker: Fake news is the story


As a functional obsessive-compulsive, I’m never happier than at year’s end when I get to make lists. Herewith, my picks for the most important stories of 2017:

This year my list is short: “Fake News”—from which all cursings flow.

Not only has the president’s frequent “fake news” defense against any story he dislikes helped codify the idea that the media, especially CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, seek only to misinform, but this strategic deception has created a volunteer class of the arrogantly ignorant.

While such consistent dishonesty is annoying, my greater concern is for the future of the republic. The health of our democratic system of government relies at least somewhat upon a reasonably well-informed citizenry. When truth is relative, facts are fungible and the loudest voice wins the day, why, anyone really can become president.

How do journalists combat the rallying cry of the president himself? It’s impossible to argue with a fool or a liar. It is also difficult to convince people of one’s earnestness or commitment to standards if they fundamentally don’t care. In exasperation, one can be tempted to say such things as “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which happens to be the rather self-regarding slogan emblazoned on the Post’s masthead—and also happens to be true.

Art, it seems, has come to the rescue. Voila: “The Post.”

Among the many reasons to love Steven Spielberg’s new movie is that “The Post” may be the best rebuttal yet to the “fake news” mantra. It’s the story of the Post’s publication of parts of the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, which revealed that three presidents (John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) had lied persistently about the war and its human toll. The New York Times actually broke the story but was forced to cease publishing under a Justice Department injunction, which ultimately was reversed by the Supreme Court in 1971.

The injunction, nevertheless, provided the Post an opportunity to intercept the ball and run with it, publishing excerpts from its own, subsequently acquired copy of the documents. The movie traces the partnership of then-publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and former executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as they struggle with the decision to publish the papers.

Much of the focus is on Graham, who assumed control of the Post after her husband and co-owner, Phil Graham, committed suicide in August 1963—hardly a tepid time to be in the news business. Although the paper has long been considered a Graham family enterprise, it was Katharine’s father, Eugene Meyer, who bought the paper in 1933 at a bankruptcy auction, eventually handing over the reins to Katharine’s husband.

Underlying the story of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers was an unsubtle, feminist subtext that will be familiar to women of a certain age. In 1963, “Kay” Graham was the only woman in the boardroom and one of only a few women when she glided through the newsroom. Thus, this wife-turned-publisher had to face not only business challenges for which she was ill-prepared, including a risky public offering, she also had to convince skeptical men that she was up to the job. Her fear, convincingly portrayed and palpably disabling at times, was an obstacle to overcome, which she did with the help of the fearless Bradlee, the tough warrior-editor who was Hollywood long before Hanks (or Jason Robards) played him.

Pivotal in Graham’s transformation was the decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which was portrayed as torturous owing to two concurrent problems: One, she feared the banks would abandon her during the then-imminent public offering; and, two, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had commissioned the study that became known as the Pentagon Papers, was one of her dearest friends.

Both she and Bradlee, who had been close to Kennedy, were forced to choose between loyalty to friends—or the truth. Their respective struggles with this essential question was, for me, the essence of the film. At one point, Bradlee, apparently hurt that Kennedy had lied to him, reflects on the inherent tension between being friends with newsmakers and his responsibility to report news.

The message embedded therein is that facts and truth matter most of all. In newsrooms where real-life journalists pursue both, the very real struggles on view in “The Post” are replicated every day. There may be less drama, but the stakes are just as high. In a time of “fake news,” darkness settles when people can no longer tell the difference.

Guest Views: CDC’s seven dirty words merely, er, discouraged, says White House

Bunk, says the Centers for Disease Control. Its staff was NOT, repeat NOT, forbidden to use certain terms—“diversity,” “fetus,” “transgender,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “science-based” and “evidence-based”—in budget documents.

These were merely, um, suggestions from the Health and Human Services Department mother ship to avoid, uh, let’s see, “over-used” terminology that might confuse or set off alarms with members of Congress and the Trump administration as they review the budget. No ban here, move along please.


The whole mishegoss is yet another fascinating study in how carefully controlled language can be used to try to shape beliefs. Donald Trump and his administration excel at this, epitomized by “fake news.”

And while this HHS advice may not have been intended as a total ban on using the words, the discussion was instructive. For example, CDC staffers were advised they could replace “science-based” with something like: “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

“Doctor, I seem to have lost the use of my right arm. What does the community think should be done?”

Community standards and wishes are anathema to scientific method, which sets out to prove or disprove theories from a neutral perspective. But political philosophy does affect scientific research very directly in one way: whether or not to pursue it.

At one time, research on AIDS was controversial because many Christians thought it was God’s punishment for homosexuals. President Reagan’s press secretary made homosexual jokes about it. We can only imagine how a Trump administration would have approached AIDS if it had appeared today. (One of the inadvisable words, remember, is “transgender.”)

Now the Trump administration is pulling back funding for all kinds of research. The next time an Ebola or Zika threat surfaces, the CDC will be far less prepared to deal with it.

But back to those Health and Human Services guidelines. The website of the magazine Science analyzed several years of CDC budget requests and found that the troublesome words (“vulnerable”? Really?) didn’t appear often anyway. For example, “entitlement” appeared only in reference to a program that had “Entitlement” in its title.

If HHS was thinking of an actual ban, it at least had the good sense not to write it down. Reports of the instructions emerged from horrified CDC staffers after a briefing that may have been less than clear in the breadth of its intent.

Still, perhaps we should take it to heart.

When George Carlin’s “seven dirty words” comedy routine inspired a Supreme Court majority to ban certain words from public discourse, Gore Vidal accepted the challenge in his novel “Myron” by substituting names of justices for bad words. For example, the vulgar term for a male reproductive organ was a “rehnquist.” The pair of roughly circular appendages below it were “powells”.

The CDC should update this practice with its budget report. If it has the “trumps” to do it.

—The Mercury News (San Jose, California)

Sound Off for Wednesday, Dec. 27

On the sale of former GM property: They should use the GM site for an electric-car racing place or some of it anyway, instead of demolishing it. They should open the other part up for a museum or a shrine. That would be the best thing to do.

On man accused of scalding dog (Dec. 18, Page 1A): It is appalling and pitiful that a human being could inflict such horrible pain and destruction on one of God’s creatures. There must be a special place in hell for someone so cruel.

On woman sued over extra horses in town of Janesville (Dec. 17, Page 2A): I say don’t jump to conclusions until you know all the facts. Rules are rules, laws are laws, and I’m sure Porsche Kettelhut would be the first one to tell you that.

On Mills Fleet Farm opening store in Delavan area: Is there any change that they’re also going to build one in the Beloit-Janesville area? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

On Friday full-page ad (Page 10A) thanking Rep. Paul Ryan: Thank you, Paul Ryan. Better yet, I will thank the head of the Republican Party, Vladimir Putin, and then the gratitude that Paul deserves will trickle down to him.

Kudos to The Gazette for printing the full-page ad, ‘Thank Paul Ryan’ in Friday’s Gazette. We look forward to our taxes being cut and a better economy. Yes, thank you, Paul.

Thanking Paul Ryan for tax cuts? Has Paul Ryan ever thanked the taxpayers for his salary for almost 20 years? I don’t think so. For his health insurance? I don’t think so. His security and travel expenses? I don’t think so. Why would the taxpayers thank anyone for something that raises the deficit by $1.5 trillion and will end up cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as our infrastructure crumbles around us?

I sat down with my Gazette and my cup of coffee, and I got to the back page, and all of a sudden I got very sick to my stomach when I looked at the back page. I couldn’t help myself, but I regurgitated all over the paper. What I had to do then was throw the paper out. I wonder what caused me to get sick when I saw that back-page picture? I really don’t know.

On Sunday editorial, “Please don’t go, Paul. Congress needs you”: I’ve been reading The Gazette for 50 years, and I just read, ‘Please don’t go, Paul. Congress needs you,’ and now I have such a different opinion about The Gazette. Paul Ryan is only for the one-percenters, so now I’m trying to realize that The Gazette is also for the one-percenters.

On GOP tax reform: In order to keep the individual tax cuts permanent, the Senate needed to have 60 votes. The Democrats decided to play politics and threw the middle class and the working poor under the bus. Thank you, Sen. Tammy Baldwin.

On cutting corporate tax rate: For decades, the left has been demonizing corporations in this country and trying to convince Americans that they’re evil, greedy entities that poison the air and water and serve no real purpose. The fact is that corporations provide more jobs in this country than anyone else beside small business. You are going to see the results of this because companies are going to expand. New companies are going to come in and be formed. It’s going to mean jobs, jobs and more jobs.

On Christmas Eve snowfall: It’s a little after 9:30 on Sunday morning with just a light dusting of snow, and I can’t believe the county is out plowing. But yet when you get 2 to 3 inches of snow, they won’t drop the blade at all to clear the roads up. They’ll just throw salt. I just can’t figure them out, unless they want to waste time.

On Sunday Sound Off comment on poor roads: The caller in Sunday’s Sound Off blamed our rough roads on poor maintenance and lack of funds to pay for maintenance. We who reside in Wisconsin pay for road maintenance with our taxes. A lot of trucks are not based in Wisconsin, and they don’t pay the same taxes that Wisconsinites pay. Wisconsinites pay tolls to enter Illinois, and so should the truckers who enter Wisconsin.

On #MeToo: I’m wondering when, in the interest of gender fairness, females who use sex and their way of dress to climb over others in business will be named and their careers ruined.