Why is President Donald Trump reminding me of an experience involving classic rocker Billy Squier, and can the connection teach us something about "fake news"? Let's see.
President Trump spent much of his Phoenix speech Tuesday night berating "the truly dishonest people in the media." He exhorted the crowd to boo the people there chronicling his appearance, and claimed, "You would think they'd want to make our country great again, and I honestly believe they don't."
I have worked in newspapers a long time, as the memory of a Billy Squier concert will attest. I love this profession, as you probably love yours, and I love the people who serve in it, as you probably love the dedicated people you know and have known in yours. I'm not blind to the bad ones, as you are no doubt not blind to the failures in your business, but I know well the spirit and commitment that defines the overwhelming majority of editors, reporters, photographers and artists. These are people who do their work precisely because they want to make their communities and their country great. I don't just "honestly believe" this; I've seen it and experienced it.
So, I was tempted to write a column contradicting the president's speech, noting all the things he said have not been reported that in fact have been reported; noting the important difference between commentary and reporting; describing the vast diversity of news media and types of news media that by itself defies any blanket ascription of political affiliation or social motive; pointing out that the fact checkers who've chronicled his many fabrications and half truths have backed up their work with detailed research, while he, with no support whatever, tars an entire industry with demonstrable untruths apparently worthy of adoption because he "honestly" believes them. But I knew that those swayed by the president are immune to such arguments. I knew that others would just see the effort as the response you'd expect from a journalist.
Then I remembered Billy Squier. In Saginaw, Michigan, in the early 1980s, I supplemented my news reporting and editing with a stint as the local newspaper's music reviewer. I commented on albums and wrote concert reviews of the varied acts that stopped by Saginaw on their way to bigger towns. One of them was Billy Squier, who had a spate of huge hits in the early '80s including classics like "Everybody Wants You."
Despite his popularity, he was not really my cup of tea, but the job was to give people a sense of his show and I took it seriously. Rather than restrict myself to the excellent seats reserved for reviewers during the show, I got up and walked around the arena; I liked to get a feel for the performance from many vantage points. And at this show, I discovered something noteworthy. While the fans up front and around the sides of the stage were clearly going wild, those more toward the middle and back did little more than clap politely at the end of each song and do the requisite cigarette-lighter salute for an encore. That surprised me, because I thought Squier was really good. He was working hard, the sound was powerful, and an unmistakable energy shot out from the stage. So, I wrote a review that said, in essence, Billy Squier's performance was really good, but somehow much of the audience didn't seem to appreciate it.
You would have thought I had spit on Graceland. Unfortunately, the space available to the headline writer didn't offer much opportunity for nuance, so the piece was branded with the headline "Squier fails to ignite." Most concert goers apparently failed to read any further than that or to appreciate the significant props I gave to an artist I hadn't previously thought much of. I was inundated with calls and letters decrying my lack of insight, my poor reporting skills, my lack of appreciation for a true artist and so on. When I showed up for my weekend racquetball game the following Saturday morning, the woman who gave me my towel scowled and asked me, "Where do you sit at these concerts?"
Which of course was my point all along. If you sat in the first 15 rows of Squier's show, you had a rollicking good time. You went home sweaty and excited and shared all the tremendous moments with your friends who had danced and cavorted alongside you. When you saw the review in the newspaper, you were stunned because, at least on that one point emphasized in the headline, it wasn't the show you saw. If you were any of the other 6,000 or so people who attended, you probably shrugged at the review just as you shrugged at the concert.
And that brings me back to President Trump. Much of your perception about reporting depends on your perspective. If you like the subject, but see reporting that includes criticisms you don't agree with or that fails to express the passion you would demonstrate, you may be inclined to fault the reporting. But maybe you should at least temper your complaints with some of the critical thinking you expect of others.
Yes, perhaps I could have been more glowing about Billy Squier. Perhaps I could have ignored the atmosphere of the show altogether. But it was one person describing his experience on one night in his own words. That didn't make the reporting "fake" or wrong or incomplete. It just made it human, which all media are. That, Mr. President, I don't just honestly believe. I know firsthand.