I learned a lot at the 29th annual Maine Town Meeting at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan. This year’s event focused on the evolving role of the media in modern American society.

The first speaker was Robert Brent Toplin, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina. His talk was amazing. Turns out we’ve been plagued by fake news for centuries — Toplin took us back to the 1800 race between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, which featured lots of false information, accusations and ugly statements.

He noted that “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after.”

I’m still looking for that limping truth on a lot of issues today. I did love the story of the politician who went to prison for his false statements. If only that was a punishable offense today.

Today, if the news is not good for our views, we are uncomfortable. We screen out news that does this. And it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, “The greatest deception is from our own opinions.” So true (except for me, of course).

I am fed up with negative campaign ads, but Toplin recognized that they are much more effective than positive ads. And he told us that positive ads are not always truthful, either.

A lot of fake news focuses on fear today. Toplin pointed out that many presidential candidates mislead the public on key issues, and not just today. He told us that Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised, during his re-election campaign in 1940, that he would not send young people to war. That was a pretty big broken promise.

Toplin suggested instead of labeling our health plan Obamacare, it should have been called Health Security.

Truth can’t compete with false news. However, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

The second speaker was Chet Lunner, who was the editor of this newspaper before moving on to be a senior federal official. He was speaking for the Maine Humanities Council’s World in Your Library program.

Chet told us right off that he hates the term “fake news.” And he noted that accountability has been lost to convenience. That is so true.

We don’t get the same amount of real news that we used to, he said. I’ve written about how disappointed I am to find my favorite newspapers full of news about Donald Trump, with little real Maine news, especially about all the good things that are happening in Maine.

Chet told us that we can find information on the Bowdoin College website about how to spot fake news. He also referenced a website, leadstories.com. And I was particularly delighted to meet someone at this event who is part of the project to restore the Gannett House in Augusta, where there will be a focus on the First Amendment. I’m looking forward to seeing their museum.

The Maine Town Meeting is made possible in part through support provided by the Colonel Paul D. LaFond, USMC (Ret.) Fund. Col. LaFond was a frequent participant at Maine Town Meetings, and his family now generously supports this program in his honor.

An impressive young lady, Cassidy Lessner, of Charleston, received a $1,000 scholarship for winning the Margaret Chase Smith Essay Contest. Her win was doubly impressive for a girl who has just 12 kids in her class at Highview Christian Academy. Cassidy plans to attend the University of Maine in Augusta to study nursing.

I was inspired to get involved in politics by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, when she spent two hours with me and a few other teenagers during a 4-H trip to Washington, D.C.

And I loved this quote, in the written program, from Smith: “We don’t want a government that dictates to, or controls by intimidation or unfair regulation, the TV industry or any of the media. But we don’t want the TV industry, in its massive power to dictate to the government or control public officials through intimidation or fear of that power, to destroy them.”

Wise words from a very wise woman.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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