Have you seen the political news lately? Attorney General Sean Reyes has been accepting funding for his next campaign. Marco Rubio got four speeding tickets over the last 18 years. Hillary Clinton isn’t talking to reporters. Representative Ken Ivory is advocating for his American Lands Council and local control of public lands to other states.
Welcome to the summer of 2015. None of the above stories are particularly newsworthy, but lets not let important issues get in the way of a good story. In slow news months some reporters seem to be desperate for news of any kind. So non-event stories and even worse hit pieces become acceptable to print. This is particularly true at the national level. Why would anyone want to run for President? And it is happening to a lesser extent in Utah.
Elected officials to their credit appear to be resigned to these unwarranted attacks and criticisms and understand that it comes with the territory. However, you can bet the criticism hurts. Elected officials are human beings and it is never fun to see your name tarnished in public.
Reporters get away with it under the first amendment theory that elected officials are fair game for anything, including almost any slander and defamation and courts largely back them up. But these unwarranted stories have a life of their own.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen political opponents call reporters with a story that is false, with an insignificant thread of truth. The story is substantiated by other political opponents. From the mouths of multiple conspirators the reporter writes the story. A media outlet publishes it. The elected official sets the record straight, but the damage is done. In the next election, you can bet you will find excerpts from the reporter’s story in a political opponent’s campaign literature claiming it is proof of wrongdoing. Or even more effective is to have a third-party do the smear job for you. And the craziest part is that many times voters believe it. I’ve seen good people lose their political race because of hijinks just like this.
Elected officials make mistakes. The media reports those mistakes. Our representatives pay a heavy price for showing all of us they are human. We justify the onslaught of media attention in these cases because the public deserves to know and we need to hold elected officials to an expected higher standard. There is a place for investigative journalism and frankly in this day and age of media outlets just struggling to survive, there is less bandwidth for digging into legitimate issues than in the past.
Still, far too often it isn’t about mistakes. Instead, our elected officials become targets of anyone and everyone who doesn’t agree with them. And as if political opponents aren’t enough, sometimes targeted are officials whose views are contrary to media editorial boards. No matter the source, lies, rumor and innuendo should be discouraged. In the interest of truth, fairness and decency, we should be vigilant in calling out those who fabricate and sensationalize and hold them accountable. Maybe there are times when sources shouldn’t be confidential. How about a media story about those who tell these political whoppers? Maybe that would deter these rumormongers in the future.
The worst part of slanderous politics in America today is that it deters good, competent men and women from running for elected office. Since the quality of our government depends on the quality of those we elect, our future really does depend on how well we encourage responsible journalism. The future of our representative republic depends on it.