Opinion: Daily Journal

The stately pillars of the Fourth Estate must remain strong

The pillars of the Fourth Estate, i.e. the press, are taking a beating. “Fake news” has become a ridiculous cliche, yet the mantra is starting to damage those pillars like so much wind and rain. 

The stately columns are weathered. Cracked and chipped. Tweets and social media posts declare news “fake” without provocation or investigation. The meaning of “fact” is viewed in some corners as mere idea and suggestion.

Sometimes those ideas and suggestions are correct. But most times they aren’t, yet “press” and “media,” among many Americans, are pejoratives, even though the press is significantly more trustworthy than, say, around the turn of the 20th century, when yellow journalism and muckraking were the norm as newspapers tried to grab paying readers who had dozens of choices, at least. Even then, the stories, while sensational and hyperbolic, were typically built on the truth.

That’s the key. Simply put, people need to know. America, Walter Hussman Jr. wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, “has a vital interest in good journalism.” Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, points out 1,800 U.S. newspapers, mostly weeklies, have closed in the past 15 years. Those surviving, he rightly says, are shadows of their former selves.

It’s an industry in crisis, and we should be worried. All of us, regardless of partisan affiliations, political ideology, or socio-economic standing. It’s critical for our democracy, and for the strength of our republic, that we maintain and support platforms for good journalism. Fact is, because of the fall of newspapers and, subsequently, shrinking staffs, we’re missing things. Important things.

Dr. Patrick Conway, CEO of Blue Cross N.C., resigned after he was charged with drunken driving and misdemeanor child abuse.

Conway was arrested in June after his SUV sideswiped a truck on Interstate 85. His two young daughters were in the back of the car. A police report says Conway drove erratically for more than 90 miles along the busy highway. He refused to take a breathalyzer test, and he couldn’t complete sobriety tests without swaying and stumbling. 

According to the report, Conway was “absolutely belligerent” when taken to jail. Officers wrote that Conway cursed at them, threatening to get them into trouble with Gov. Roy Cooper and demanding his release.

Conway was planning an affiliation between Blue Cross N.C. and the Pacific Coast Blues plan Cambia Health Solutions. The move, which died after Conway’s arrest, was unprecedented. Together, the two Blues would have composed a $16 billion enterprise covering 7 million people across five states. The affiliation would have launched Conway into national prominence. He would have taken over as the CEO of Cambia Health Solutions, as well as holding onto his role as the CEO of Blue Cross N.C.

Yet few knew of Conway’s troubles, which didn’t come to light until late September. He was arrested in June, in Randolph County. The media didn’t learn of the charges — as well as the public, i.e., customers — until, apparently, Conway’s name appeared on a court docket. 

That’s a problem.

The CEO of Coastal Credit Union faces an impaired driving charge, WRAL reported last week.

Charles Marvin Purvis, was arrested April 9 after his van ran off the right side of Forest Pines Drive near his Raleigh home. He struck two trees and a light pole, WRAL says, according to a police report.

This happened in April.

“Purvis’ case came to light because of attention paid in recent days to the June DWI arrest of Dr. Patrick Conway, who was the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina at the time,” WRAL wrote.

That’s not  good enough. Reporters, whether they’re with a newspaper, a radio station or TV, are the conduit of information on which we’ve been ingrained to rely.

Or should be. Local news reporters are falling into extinction. 

No one caught either event on the police scanners. No reporter caught it from reading an arrest report. No magistrate or other law enforcement source picked up the phone and called a reporter. Probably because they weren’t familiar with any.

News, from local sources, is vital. Social media can be a good avenue for news, as long as it brings people back to a trusted outlet, or emanates from a trusted source. 

The idea of fake news is nothing more than an awkward strategy to divert people’s attention from what’s real and important. It’s really not that hard to tell the difference. Or, well, it didn’t used to be, during a time when newspapers, victimized by a failed business model, were replete with will and resources. When the line between news and opinion was clearly defined. When political leaders who decried credible stories due to perceptions of negativity and unfair criticism were thwarted by the truth.

Even with scant resources, local media must work to do better. To better filter the cacophony from Washington, including the salacious and baiting tweets and posts. It’s well past time to begin rebuilding journalism at the local level. Committing to local news. 

What happened with Conway and Purvis is a microcosm of a growing national crisis. A lack of transparency and a culture of secrecy. Of cover-ups. Scary times to be sure.