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Leonard Pitts Jr.: Journalism is under siege

By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Go ahead and laugh. It is funny, after all.

Indeed, it recalls one of those old Warner Bros. cartoons where Wile E. Coyote gets blown up by the very same Acme dynamite he bought to blast the Road Runner with. Only this time, it’s James O’Keefe and his so-called Project Veritas who wind up mutilated and powder burned, holding up a little placard that says, “Ouch.”

O’Keefe, you might recall, is the darling of Fox “News” and other outposts of right-wing, alt-reality who became famous for deceptively edited videos designed to embarrass Democrats, news media and other bete noires of conservative extremists. But he’s never embarrassed any of his targets as badly as he habitually embarrasses himself.

It happened again Monday when The Washington Post unmasked an apparent Project Veritas operative who had tried over the course of two weeks to induce the paper to bite on a false story. Jaime Phillips approached the Post with the sensational claim that Alabama senatorial candidate and accused child molester Roy Moore got her pregnant and induced her to have an abortion when she was 15.

The Post never ran that story. Phillips’ scheme was foiled when routine background checks turned up multiple lies, inconsistencies and red flags.

Afterward, Post reporters tailed her to the offices of Project Veritas.

The official slogan of The Washington Post is, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But just for today, the paper should change that to: “Beep-Beep (really bad word)!”

Yet if this is funny — and it is — it’s also revealing. These people actually project their scuzzy values and motivations onto the rest of us. Apparently and incredibly, these geniuses thought a responsible news organization would run that cockamamie story without checking the source or caring whether it was true. It likely made sense to them because it’s something they would have done.

Take it as superfluous proof: Journalism is under siege. Just days ago, Donald Trump rage-tweeted his latest assault on CNN, saying it represents America “poorly” to the world. The so-called president’s attack on a free and independent press prompted this rebuke from former CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden. “If this is who we are or who we are becoming,” he tweeted, “I have wasted 40 years of my life.”

That assessment is beyond sad, but these attempts to cripple news media are now an everyday thing. In mid-November, Alabama voters were robo-called by a “Bernie Bernstein,” who claimed to be a Post reporter offering a cash reward for tips damaging to Moore. Bernie Bernstein, should it need saying, does not exist.

The thinking behind this campaign to delegitimize journalism could not be more transparent. As the far right has apparently concluded it cannot win elections without suppressing votes, it now seems to have decided it cannot win political debates without suppressing facts.

This is an attempted coup against reality itself. What Project Veritas and all the other merchants of mendacity seek is a world without memory, a world where all facts are always in controversy and nothing is ever truly knowable unless it serves their ideological ends. The people of such a world are manipulable. They believe what you tell them to. They are anchored by nothing.

That’s the world some of us already live in. If the rest of us are not mindful of our news sources and vigilant of our biases, if we forget to repeatedly ask ourselves how we know the things we know, it’ll be our world too, soon enough.

For the record, “veritas” is a Latin word. It means “truth.”

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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