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A Judge's View: Support a free press, the vital role it plays in our world

As a young Navy judge advocate, I was assigned to a court-martial involving a sexual assault on a female sailor. This was shortly after women were allowed to serve on aircraft carriers. It was the first time I had to field a call from the press, and I immediately called my executive officer for advice.

Dale Harris"Lt. Harris," he growled, "all you need to remember is that the press gets it wrong. Every time."

They don't, of course. But like many public officials, I have a love-hate relationship with the press. I read my local papers faithfully, and I have a handful of news websites I visit first thing every morning. I write this column.

However, it is very different when the media cover what I do in the courthouse. More than once, I told a now-retired reporter that my blood pressure rose 30 points every time I saw him sitting in my courtroom. There are times when I read the coverage of a case and don't like it. One time I even called to complain.

My personal health notwithstanding, there is no denying the vital role a free press plays in our society. With the proliferation of sketchy Internet information, that role is even more important. Traditional journalism standards for fact-checking, verifying sources, and maintaining independence are the only way to sort through all the misinformation that can circle the globe in a matter of seconds. We live in a very polarized and divided world, where an objective notion of "truth" seems to be elusive at best.

Maybe I am naïve, but I still believe that journalists who hold themselves to higher standards ultimately will carry the day.

Events in the past week or so brought this issue to life. A person, apparently acting in concert with an organization carrying out a defined agenda, deliberately attempted to trick the Washington Post into spreading false accusations against a political candidate. The reporter did her job, though, and eventually exposed the person's story as false and exposed the organization that put the person up to it. Good for her — and good for the Post.

And good for all of us. It is far too easy for people to dismiss any reporting as "fake news" when it conflicts with their worldview. Journalists do make mistakes, and we should hold them accountable when they do. But we should never fall into the trap of believing that everything is agenda-driven and that no one is searching for the truth.

Throughout history, political attempts to weaken the press have been part of a deliberate strategy to undermine a potential check on political power. That never seems to end well.

As a society, we need to make sure we patronize and promote those outlets that enforce and maintain high journalistic standards. We need to evaluate critically the information we receive from any source — but especially from those that operate in the dark shadows of the Internet. Most of all, we should all want to hear the truth, not just someone telling us we're right.

So, journalists, keep doing what you do. I'll keep taking my blood-pressure pills.

Dale Harris is a 6th Judicial District judge in the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth.

To learn more

What: A presentation titled, "Making the News or Faking the News? The State of the First Amendment in 2017"

When: 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. today

Where: Room 90 in Bohannon Hall at the University of Minnesota Duluth

Who: The presentation is sponsored by UMD's Labovitz School of Business and Economics; it features Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication who is a national legal expert on freedom of speech and the media; the event is open to the public

Tickets: Free

More: As the News Tribune reported this week, the event centers on the consequences of plummeting public trust in the mainstream news media amid the rise of social media and blogs, which are not always bound by ethical principles