Opinion: Of trust, a republic and a career

  • Bert Roughton Jr.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
12:00 p.m Friday, Jan. 26, 2018 Opinion

On the Saturday afternoon after I turned in my retirement notice, I went to see the movie “The Post.”

Of course, the story of brave journalists speaking truth to power elicited a few tears and hard swallows. I am a sap for movies about newspapering and the fantasies and realities they conjure. After 40 years, they continue to inspire me. I love this work and the people who do it.

This column was supposed to be about me. I am in fact ending my 37-year career at the AJC at the end of February. Naturally, I am rich with anecdotes from such a long and rewarding career. Buy me a beer or join me in our St. Simons garden, and I’ll be happy regale you. That’s what pensioners do.

But, enough about me; I want to use my fleeting moments with you to talk about something else. I’m worried. I’m worried for us all.

The other day I read that our shared reality is, more or less, the sum of what “the media” tells us and what we then believe to be true. This elegant transaction is central to the idea of self-government. Informed citizens take what they consume and believe and convert it into civic action and ultimately governance. It was all so simple.

As I said, much about “The Post” spoke to me. But the most arresting words were not from a screenwriter. The writers were Supreme Court justices. In the benchmark Pentagon Papers case – the movie’s central event — the high court had ruled that newspapers have a fundamental right to print government secrets.

In their ruling, Hugo Black and William O. Douglas summed up the essential purpose of my career. “In the First Amendment the founding fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy,” they wrote. “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. … Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

As stirring as their words are, they were written in a world that no longer exists. The end has come to the old arrangement that had reporters paying attention to the government and other important institutions and then telling us what they had learned. We now get our information from a million places, some of them pretty careless with the truth and many crafted to reinforce our biases. If this keeps up, we will be entombed in our own opinions. Democracy will then die.

Trust was always the great leveler because it made it possible to listen when you disagreed. If we only trust people who agree with us, then debate dies. Our minds close.

Unfortunately, trust in institutions such as the media, government and business has fallen to a new low.

It is so bad that I wonder what would happen today if a big newspaper reported that the government had lied for years about the prospects of prevailing in a war that was killing thousands of Americans? Would the reporting be dismissed as biased and fake news or worse?

Trust was the glue that for so long has held this fragile relationship together. We journalists earned your trust; and you were willing to give it. These days, not so much.

The decline has been tracked for years by something called the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global survey that asks how the world’s big institutions are regarded by various groups of people.

The 2018 report is awful. “…We find the world in a new phase in the loss of trust: the unwillingness to believe information, even from those closest to us,” Richard Edelman, the company’s CEO, writes in the report’s introduction. “The loss of confidence in information channels and sources is the fourth wave of the trust tsunami.”

Three big waves of change have eroded our trust in institutions — globalization and automation; the Great Recession; and massive global migration.

“Now, in this fourth wave, we have a world without common facts and objective truth, weakening trust even as the global economy recovers,” Edelman writes. “In a world of fake news and with leaders – including our president — expending so much energy attacking journalists, it’s no wonder that the media’s standing has fallen off the cliff.”

Some other findings:

And then there’s Facebook.

Last year, two-thirds of U.S. adults got news from social media, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Facebook has 2 billion users, dwarfing Twitter.

In social media, the experienced and informed editors who select stories for the front page are displaced by algorithms, which creates a false sense of consensus and community. Bots can’t tell fact from fiction. Technology companies are not news organizations.

Tom Standage, the deputy editor of The Economist, said recently that the false and manufactured news is now inescapable: “A mechanism that held fake news in check for nearly two centuries — the bundle of stories from an organization with a reputation to protect — no longer works,”

I know, I know. What a downer. Not a good thing for a farewell column. Yet, believe it or not, my worries are eased by great optimism.

The folks in the AJC work absurdly hard to produce accurate, fair and smart news reports. They fret over context, nuance and depth. You will never find fake news on our pages and websites. The newspaper still relies on judgment not algorithms.

Think of the AJC as the journalism equivalent of a farm-to-table restaurant. It’s all locally sourced by expert craftspeople whose names are on on every item.

I can tell you without reservation that no one knows the things that matter about Metro Atlanta and Georgia better than the reporters, editors and visual journalists in this newsroom. And no one loves this state and city more.

Trust is something we gain one story at a time. I believe our readers still trust us, even as they constantly challenge us to be better.

You have a role in this, too. Subscribe — to the printed newspaper or myAJC.com. Subscribe today, read daily. Start reversing these dangerous global trends here.

Next to voting, nothing is more important to our community. Tell your friends to subscribe. Read critically and demand everything of the journalists here. Learn to love them as I have. They won’t disappoint you.

It breaks my heart that I won’t be able to open my door each morning to see a Journal-Constitution on my porch. One has greeted me there since my family moved to Atlanta in 1971.

Instead, my sunny St. Simons porch will be graced by The Brunswick News. I intend to read every word every day.

Heaven help them.