Next week, Donald Trump has promised to announce the results of his first-annual “Fake News Awards.” While we wait, it’s worth taking a look back at the long-running struggle between media and the truth. That history might surprise you. In today’s issue, The Masthead’s new fellow, Karen Yuan, reports that fake news is as old as journalism. What’s new is an interest in the truth. Here’s Karen.
America’s Interest in Real News is Relatively Novel
Fake news is old news in America—it’s been part of news traditions since the political propaganda created during the American Revolution. “Fake news has existed as long as American journalism has been around,” said Jacob Soll, a professor of history at University of Southern California, who described a world history of fake news in an article for Politico. “It’s the rise of objective news that is something different. The idea of objective journalism only really came about in the early 20th century.”
In fact, looking at the history of journalism in America, “real news” appears to be more novel than fake news. The prevalence of fake news today is not the result of a slide from truth to fiction but rather a testament to how real news is something of a novelty in American journalism.
Fake news can mean a lot of different things: In the Trumpian sense, it’s best understood as hoaxes or misleading and erroneous reporting. For Soll, fake news is yellow journalism—sensationalist stories that often have a political bent. In the beginning, Soll said, “fake news was how you sell papers: sightings of things that didn’t happen and two-headed whales.” He recounted the example of Ben Franklin, the Founding Father who is remembered as a truth-seeking scientist. He was also a newspaper editor and printer, however, and his newspapers fabricated stories in the colonies about King George III allying with murderous Indians. Those stories influenced popular animosity toward the king.
By the 1800s, yellow journalism had become a mainstream business model for newspapers. “Americans excelled at it. America had its own particular genre of tabloid news,” Soll said. The publisher William Randolph Hearst built a media empire out of tabloids in the Gilded Age. “The 19th century saw the birth of the journalism baron. That’s why Hearst has Hearst Castle in California—he made that kind of money.” Hearst, who helped instigate the Spanish-American War by publishing false stories about Spain’s persecution of the Cuban people, famously told a correspondent in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
Yellow journalism may have been good business, but some of its critics saw through it. I found one of the earliest instances of the phrase in an article in The Sun from September 3, 1892, which charged its competitor the New York World with “manufacturing news in its own office … Of all unfortunate and foolish things a newspaper may do, that of destroying public confidence in itself is most unfortunate and most foolish, and it can accomplish this end in no other way more quickly or more completely than in the matter of ‘fake’ news.”
“The line between news and propaganda was always thin until the birth of the objective newspaper,” Soll said, one of which was the New York Times. In the late 19th century, publisher Adolph Ochs aimed for the paper to be the antithesis of peers like the World. “It was for a funny reason—to sell papers to people who wanted solid information so they could invest money with it,” Soll said. But it was part of a broader movement toward objective, fact-based news. “The Hearst model exhausted Americans who wanted something not sensationalist.”
In the 20th century, journalistic conventions as we recognize them today emerged. News organizations began to professionalize and regulate the way they reported news. Objective news was crystallized by journalistic practices in the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially during seminal moments like the coverage of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. “People loved leaked news, which seemed much more real because it had been leaked,” said Soll.
Today, technology is enabling fake news just as it did in the 18th century. Rashes of contemporary yellow journalism have appeared online recently in the form of, for example, sensationalist partisan news sites operated by teenagers looking to make cash. Back then, mass printing technology let publishers like Franklin thrive. The internet today plays a similar role, according to Soll. “It’s cheap. Web is problematic because it gives you news cheaply … you got that in the 18th century with the explosion of cheap pamphlets filled with crazy stories.” At the time, pamphlets spread news even wider than traditional news placards on the street, which often featured false headlines.
For Soll, it’s not only the ease of distribution but also the nature of the stories themselves that define, both then and now, yellow journalism. Much of fake news in the 19th century was political in nature. Anti-Catholic newspapers in Philadelphia made false claims in 1844 that Irishmen stole bibles from schools, influencing violent attacks on Catholic churches in the area. Today’s fake news is a “more politicized version of Hearst,” Soll said. “Telling stories that whip up racial and economic fear is a version of yellow journalism.” Fake news that incites prejudice has precedent. “Fake news of this sort is often calculated to produce international ill-feeling,” wrote the author of an essay on “fake journalism” in the 1898 political anthology The Arena.
The history of fake news in America is the history of news in America. But how does real news thrive when fake news has such a head start and an accommodating medium? “You can’t go down rabbit hole with placards but you can go down the rabbit hole with the web,” Soll said. “And that's what’s really scary.”
—Karen Yuan, Masthead fellow
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: If you missed Caroline’s conversation Monday with religion writer Emma Green, you can find the transcript and the recording here. Here’s a lingering question from that call. Approximately one in five Americans identifies as “spiritual but not religious.” Does that describe you? What draws you to that faith group? Reply to Caroline at email@example.com.
- Your feedback: Your feedback is what helps keep us grounded. Take just a second to fill out our brief daily survey. (And say hi to Karen!)
- What’s coming: Tomorrow, I’ll write about an interesting proposal: the idea of a truth commission for the #MeToo moment.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.