A letter writer recently complained about a Sentinel editorial ("Mueller's final word," May 30) portraying Special Counsel Robert Mueller in an honorable light.
"Was the honorable Mueller by the book when he allowed four innocent men to rot in jail, two of them dying while in prison?" the writer asked.
We didn't publish the letter because it perpetuates a myth. In a first-person essay, "Smearing Robert Mueller," published in The New York Times on April 18, Nancy Gertner describes how Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators have blamed the special counsel for one of the FBI's worst scandals. But there's no evidence to back up their claims.
She would know. Gertner was the federal judge who presided over a successful lawsuit brought against the government by two of those men and the families of the other two, who had died in prison.
"Based on the voluminous evidence submitted in the trial, and having written a 105-page decision awarding (the plaintiffs) $101.8 million, I can say without equivocation that Mr. Mueller, who worked in the United States attorney's office in Boston from 1982 to 1988, including a brief stint as the acting head of the office, had no involvement in that case. He was never even mentioned."
Consider this a microcosm of the "fake news" phenomenon. The author of the letter seemed to firmly believe that the Sentinel was ignoring "facts." But those "facts" turn out to be the conspiratorial musings of a man who isn't a journalist. He's an entertainer, unbound by any code of journalistic ethics. He's not alone of course. Cable news outlets are littered with professional opinion-makers — on both ends of the political spectrum — who are paid handsomely to spin the truth however they see fit.
Perhaps this is why a majority of respondents in a recent national survey believe journalists have the responsibility for fixing the country's growing "fake news" problem — a position we find a bit baffling.
It's like asking doctors to fix the nation's obesity problem. What can they do except tell patients to eat better and hammer home the importance of good nutrition? Ultimately, it's up to the patients to make the changes. Along those lines, we recommend getting real, actual hard reporting from newspapers as opposed to Hannity or Rachel Maddow, whose "facts" come with a political agenda.
But the Pew Research Center's survey shows that feelings about fake news are largely divided along partisan lines. We can't even agree on what the term "fake news" means. Republicans were far more likely to believe that journalists inserting their own views into stories was a big problem in keeping the public informed (60% compared with 20% among Democrats).
But those are perceptions — not necessarily a reflection of the truth. How can journalists solve a problem in which adherents of one party have largely lost faith in the Fourth Estate? Tribalism has put the days of a truth shared across the partisan spectrum behind us.
It's not going to get better. How do we, as a country, snap back to a standard of objective fact gathering and dissemination? Frankly, we think newspapers — and the vigor of the fact-checking editorial process — are the answer. But that all depends on the willingness of news consumers to eat their vegetables.