This column was originally published Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 on TheStatehouseFile.com and is redistributed with permission of the author.
By John Krull
FRANKLIN, Indiana – By coincidence, just a few hours after the president of the United States showered praise at a rally on a congressman who assaulted a reporter, I spoke before a gathering of high school journalists.
My event was the annual convention of the Indiana High School Press Association, which is held on the campus of Franklin College, where I teach. More than 250 of the best, most dedicated and hardest-working Hoosier high school students surrendered days of their fall break to attend.
I delivered a greeting. As I spoke, vertical banners stood behind me proclaiming IHSPA’s values, among them “truth,” “integrity,” “courage” and “freedom.”
I told the students they inspired me. I said journalism always had been a tough profession that called out for tough-minded people, but that was true now more than ever. It was heartening, I said, to see many young people eager to answer a call for service.
The president’s message was different.
President Trump complimented U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, for “body-slamming” a reporter who tried to ask him about health care.
Then, afterward, Gianforte lied about the assault. He said the reporter initiated the attack and that he was just defending himself. A recording of the incident and eyewitness accounts showed that wasn’t true.
Without provocation, Gianforte grabbed the reporter around the throat, slammed him to the ground and then began punching him repeatedly.
Confronted by the facts and the law, Gianforte pled guilty and was sentenced to community service and anger management training. To avoid a civil suit, he agreed to a settlement with the reporter, including at least one term – an on-the-record interview with the reporter – Gianforte has refused to honor.
The president of the United States paid tribute to a guy who took a cheap shot at another guy, and who then lied about it.
And he disparaged the guy who told the truth.
Just another day in this president’s America.
The high school students before whom I spoke know a bit about that.
For the past two years, IHSPA has tried to get the Indiana General Assembly to adopt a student press freedom bill. The bill isn’t complicated. It just asserts student journalists should have the same rights as other Americans do – that their right to tell the truth shouldn’t be suppressed and that they shouldn’t be punished for telling the truth.
School administrators apparently don’t like that.
As the bill was in its final stages before the Indiana legislature two years ago, a story broke out of Kansas.
Some dedicated and diligent high school journalists at Pittsburgh High School realized many students in their school didn’t know much about their new principal. So, they decided to do a story on her.
In their reporting, they found she had said she received a graduate degree in 2010 from a program that had shut down in 1984. There were other significant distortions or misrepresentations on her resume, as well.
They reported this and made national news. The principal resigned.
Here in Indiana, school administrators opposed to the student press freedom bill pointed to the Kansas story as an example of just how dangerous it could be to treat young people as if they were citizens.
See, they argued to legislators, this is what happens if you don’t let us control what student journalists think, say or publish. They cost this poor woman her job.
In other words, they sided with the principal who lied, rather than the kids who reported the truth.
Notice a pattern here?
My own career as a journalist began several decades ago when I was about the age of the students gathered at the IHSPA convention.
In that time, I’ve learned something. People in position of power may grow irritated with incorrect information in a story, but a correction and an apology most often mollify them.
The truth, though, can enrage them.
Mistakes can be fixed, but the truth can’t be fixed.
It is what it is, and it will never go away.
That’s why the students at the IHSPA convention inspire me.
They understand something the president and many other people in positions of power do not.
The enduring value of truth.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.