LeBeau Reflects on Reporting in Era of ‘Fake News’

Gasson Hall

Phil LeBeau beamed with visible delight.

“Ah, the ‘fake news’ question!”

An audience member had asked him to comment on the myriad of accusations levelled by United States government officials against journalists in recent months.

LeBeau, an Emmy Award-winning Chicago-based reporter who covers the auto and airline industries for CNBC, spoke in the Fulton Honors Library on Monday as a part of the “Lunch with a Leader” speaker series. The event was sponsored by the Carroll School of Management’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics.

Last week, when LeBeau covered a meeting between airline executives and President Donald Trump at the White House, a new atmosphere of hostility toward reporters was noticable, he said.

In turn, Trump’s accusations that the media is engaged in a conspiracy to mislead the public, and his constant use of the term “fake news” to describe the work of career journalists, have deeply insulted and alienated many in the industry, LeBeau said.

“There is definitely a feeling of tension [between journalists and the administration],” he said.

When asked by a student to elaborate on the “fake news” phenomenon, LeBeau said that the only way for reporters to deal with such accusations is to strive for honesty while trusting in the discerning faculties of the public.

“If somebody says that what you’re reporting is ‘fake news’—if someone chooses to believe that—there’s nothing you can do aside from reporting the facts and having faith that consumers will realize when something is fake and when it’s not,” LeBeau said.

LeBeau also drew a distinction between “fake news,” which consists of the presentation of fraudulent facts, and differences of perspective which may lead a reader to disagree with a writer’s conclusion or analysis.

“All reporters come at their job with their own background, their own influences, and their own perspectives,” LeBeau said.

In a free society, the general public—the consumer of what the media produces—must evaluate the veracity of available news sources. Writers and reporters may not always draw the same conclusions from the facts, but a multiplicity of media perspectives is not necessarily injurious to the nation, LeBeau said.

“That’s part of society’s interacting with, taking in, and consuming journalism,” LeBeau said.

LeBeau emphasized the importance of readers taking responsibility for both what reporting they believe and what news sources they choose to trust.

The media industry has changed dramatically since LeBeau began his career, due in part to the emergence of the internet. LeBeau advised the undergraduates in attendance to prepare for seismic shifts in their own professions after they graduate.

“[Your industry] will be completely different in 30 years,” LeBeau said.

Despite changes in the way news coverage and analysis are transmitted to the public, many aspects of the journalist’s craft are timeless—grounded by years of well-founded tradition, LeBeau said.

“The method in which I deliver the news is dramatically different,” he said, “but certain bedrock principles—how to tell a story, collect facts, and develop sources—will never go away.”

Featured image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff