How the ‘Fake News’ Crisis of 1896 Explains Trump

William Jennings Bryan, the populist presidential hopeful, warned of an “epidemic of fake news” in his day.

William Jennings Bryan (Library of Congress)

Fake news is everywhere. The power of the press is said to be waning. And because the nation’s most famous populist—the man with his sights on the presidency—can’t trust the lying media, he says, he has no option but to be a publisher himself.

Oh yeah, and the year is 1896.

The would-be president in question is William Jennings Bryan. In an era before the internet, television, or radio, the best way to reach the masses is with newsprint. So, without the option of tweeting his grievances after losing the election to William McKinley, what does Bryan do? He starts his own newspaper. And he uses it to rail against “fake news.”

I don’t need to tell you a lot of this sounds weirdly familiar.

“There seems to be an epidemic of fake news from the city of Lincoln, [Nebraska], and it all comes from Mr. Bryan’s ‘friends’—names not given,” Bryan’s newspaper, The Commoner, wrote in 1907. “It would seem unnecessary to deny reports sent out to which no name was attached, and yet it has been necessary to send a number of telegrams to notify other papers that the report was unauthorized … As Mr. Bryan has a paper—The Commoner—through which he speaks every week, and as he is speaking often and giving out interviews frequently, a newspaper ought to view with suspicion any report sent out from Lincoln or anywhere else purporting to state what Mr. Bryan thinks or intends to do.” (In this case, the issue at hand was Bryan’s stance against a third term for Teddy Roosevelt, which some papers had apparently questioned.)

Here in 2017, Donald Trump has turned “fake news” into an insult lobbed at real news organizations publishing accurate information. But there’s also the problem of what might confusingly be called “real fake news”—as in, false reports that are often intended to deceive. For example, made-up news is being published by people like Cameron Harris, who set out to grab the attention of Trump supporters who had a “severe distrust of the media” by fabricating stories about Hillary Clinton that looked like news (but weren’t) on a website that looked like a legit newspaper (but wasn’t). Why would a person do such a thing? Harris told The New York Times he made tens of thousands of dollars in ad revenue because of all the traffic to his site.

All the while, Trump is tweeting and tweeting and tweeting—not because he likes to, he insisted in an interview with Fox & Friends this week, but because, “I get very dishonest media, very dishonest press, and it’s my only way that I can counteract.” (Nevermind that a strong majority of people in the United States—69 percent of those surveyed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll—believe Trump’s use of Twitter is a bad thing.)

So while Bryan had a paper through which he spoke every week, Trump has Twitter. The two men are political kindred spirits, as my colleague David Frum has pointed out. A difference in preferred publishing technologies aside, both of them aimed to delegitimize the press—an institution already bogged down with the complexities of an actual and pervasive problem with fake news. Defining “fake news” then was as slippery as it is today: People used the term to describe well-intentioned but inaccurate reports, political propaganda, partisanship, ethically questionable profit-driven journalism, and more.

“It could not be foreseen that a time would come when a partisan press would seek to mislead the people,” a columnist lamented for The Davenport Daily Republican in 1896. “It could not be foreseen that a time would come when whole columns of fake news would be published, that whole columns of sensational stuff would be printed and read.”

Deceptions included the “miserable fake news,” that Bryan had won the election, according to a 1896 story in the Iola Register, of Kansas. It’s not clear from the story where that misinformation was published, only that the fake news had spread across town: “There were pale faces; there was numbness… So terrible was the shock in some places that yesterday men looked as if they had just been saved from some deadly peril and were still wondering how they escaped.”

Back then, as today, people didn’t know quite what to do about fake news.

The Constitutional right to free press makes it blessedly difficult to legislate the flow of information—even questionable information. And the people who willfully deceive others with made-up stories don’t seem to care about the harm they cause.

An item published in The Lebanon Express, in 1893, describes state legislation introduced to combat “fake news.” (Library of Congress)

“The trouble is that the fakemakers are green and wild,” the Indianapolis Journal explained in 1896, in response to made-up stories being pushed by Bryan supporters. “They assume that the people of this country are densely ignorant and will accept as truth any fake which they can devise.” (The Journal concluded it was “too late to undo the mischief which this absurd publication of fakes has inflicted.”)

One newspaper, The Polk County Republican, of Tennessee, carried this boilerplate warning near its masthead in the early 20th century: “All communications, to receive attention, must have the writer’s name to it. This is our only protection against ‘fake’ news and the rule will not be broken under any circumstances.”

In 1898, fake news was seen as enough of a problem that a promise against it made its way into the motto of The St. Paul Globe:

Some newspapers “not only reproduce fake news from day to day, but boast of its accuracy in the face of the most humiliating exposures,” the Daily Public Ledger, a Kentucky newspaper, wrote in 1898. “For all that, they are making a mistake. They can fool some of the people all of the time, but the number will diminish as exposures multiply. Truth will win in the long run, and the papers that seek the best sources of information and give the most accurate information possible, ignoring fakes and discrediting doubtful stories, will always be the ones trusted by a majority of the reading public.”

Within the journalism industry, there was much bellowing about the importance of vetting sources and verifying the accuracy of stories before publishing. Then, as today, there was harrumphing over what would eventually become known as clickbait. In one particularly spirited editorial in The Sun, of Jacksonville, Florida, a columnist blasts another local paper as “a harlot of newspaperdom. Living without conscience and devoid of shame, money-getting is its only object.”

“Degeneracy of any kind is a menace to society, but the type exerting the utmost force toward the imperil of citizenship is degenerate journalism,” the editorial continues. “The great newspaper, sinking downward into an immoral slough; dragging its readers into a slimy morass of untruth.”

Journalists, of course, are predisposed to believe truth will inevitably triumph. That belief is at the heart of what journalists set out to do: “Seek truth and report it.” The question today, when there are so many sources of information available at any given moment and so much vitriol directed at journalists—including from the person set to hold the nation’s highest office—is whether the people who are reporting the truth are being heard.

In 1915, the Chicago Day Book, published a column under the heading “fake news” about the future of journalism. “Some day,” the writer concluded, “the people of this country will demand as much protection against adulterated news as they now get against adulterated food for the stomach.”

Some day. But not yet.