John S. Knight, founder of Knight Newspapers, knew there was a verifiable truth. Tony Spina Miami Herald File Photo
John S. Knight, founder of Knight Newspapers, knew there was a verifiable truth. Tony Spina Miami Herald File Photo

Taylor Batten

Now more than ever, ‘get the truth and print it’

By Taylor Batten

Editorial Page Editor

January 28, 2017 12:45 PM

UPDATED January 30, 2017 09:34 AM

I was in church last Sunday when the minister invited us to greet our neighbors in surrounding pews. I stood up, shook the hand of the man in the pew behind me and said good morning.

“Hard times for you at the Observer these days, huh?” he said.

I wasn’t sure what he meant. I asked him if he was talking about how our rapidly changing industry is putting pressure on revenues.

“No,” he said. “I mean you personally. It’s a bad time to be an editor.”

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

The church service was resuming so we had to go back to our seats and I couldn’t press him further. But his tone was more judgmental than sympathetic.

A lot of people feel that way about journalists these days. Heck, we’ve never been the most-loved (or lovable!) profession. But it’s been getting worse, driven by hyper-polarization among voters and corresponding splintering within the media universe. Now we are regarded as the enemy by a president indifferent to the truth and by the millions who hungrily gobble up fake news.

Here’s the truth that I would have told my pew mate had I had more time: No, sir, you are mistaken. It’s a great time to be an editor (or a journalist of any kind). In fact, I can’t remember a time in my career – which goes back more than 25 years – in which I felt more urgency and excitement around what we do.

“Get the truth and print it,” was how Jack Knight, the founder of long-time Observer owner Knight Newspapers, defined our mission.

That was always a simple but unassailable philosophy. Today, it is more imperative than ever, because the very notion of truth is at risk. The president of the United States spent much of his first week in office saying things that were demonstrably false. His inauguration crowds were not the biggest of all time. He has maligned the intelligence apparatus. There is zero evidence that millions of illegal immigrants voted in November’s election.

Donald Trump’s top strategist, Stephen Bannon, said last week that the media should “keep its mouth shut” and declared it “the opposition party.” We have seen similar tactics from N.C. political leaders.

It’s part of a strategy to play to the fears and predispositions of a sizable chunk of Americans, the truth be damned. Over time, this becomes dangerous as more people embrace “alternative facts” and even more come to believe that the truth is endlessly complicated or unknowable and so not worth pursuing.

I’m here to tell you: The truth is knowable, and it’s essential to a functioning democracy. The vast majority of the media are responsibly chasing it every day.

Long ago, Jack Knight said this about what we do: “We are committed to the philosophy that journalism is likewise a public trust, an institution which serves, protects and advances the public welfare.”

That’s still true now. So actually, fellow church-goer, it is an unparalleled time to be an editor. Those of us at the Observer will work as passionately as ever to get the truth and print it.

tbatten@charlotteobserver.com