Real Talk on the Power of Fake News
Fake news is in the news. During the election, political partisans and cagey entrepreneurs from Arizona to Macedonia flooded social networks with entirely made-up stories that mostly favored Donald Trump and often got far more readers than the perhaps flawed but generally not faked products of conventional news outlets. That’s definitely disturbing (for a journalist, at least). But is it new?
In an op-ed article published Friday in the Washington Post, Binghamton University historian Robert G. Parkinson answered with a clear “no,” offering examples of partisan news-faking by Founding Fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. “No” was also the gist of the answer that Richard R. John, a professor of history and communications at the Columbia Journalism School, gave when I talked to him last week. But there were caveats, and lots of fun facts. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Richard John: Fake news is stories that the person who is planting them or writing them or distributing them knows to be not true. There’s guile, there’s consciousness, there is some kind of self-awareness. In the newspaper world, this goes back to the 18th century. The most customary fake stories were those meant to move the markets. If you know that the price of cotton or wheat is going to go up on a rumor of warfare, then you have an incentive to plant such a story.
During the American Civil War, the Journal of Commerce ran a story that was deliberately faked by a Brooklyn speculator who was trying to move the markets. It was a story about conscription: Abraham Lincoln was going to conscript so many men. The story gets planted, markets move and Lincoln is furious. He actually shuts down the Journal of Commerce for a couple of days.
In the 1870s, 1880s -- and this is something I’ve written a fair amount about -- Jay Gould is in a very distinctive position. He has a majority stake in the New York Tribune newspaper, he has major investments in railroads, and he is intent upon making money speculating in the shares of Western Union, which is the dominant network provider in telegraphy.
He can move the market in one of two ways. If he plants a rumor in the press that Congress is going to consider a bill to nationalize the telegraph -- which was the sort of thing that Congress was debating, because there was a clause in the Telegraph Act of 1866 that gave Congress the right to buy up telegraph companies -- that will have the tendency to drive up the price of Western Union shares. If he starts up a rival telegraph company or plants a story in the press that he’s started up a rival telegraph company, that can drive down the price of Western Union shares.
Justin Fox: It’s interesting that now -- and maybe we’re being naïve -- the perception is that the financial press doesn’t have that problem.
John: Correct. Today they say the two realms in which you’re not going have fake news are sports and finance, because those are the two realms in which you have a well-informed audience. I’m not so sure that’s true about all kinds of financial news.
There have always been elements within the financial press which have been very conscientious, but on the other hand -- particularly in times of turmoil, warfare, rumors -- because the markets tend to move so quickly, you can get ahead of it and you can make money.
So that’s one kind [of fakery]. Another is stories that are planted, sponsored content. That’s not quite fake, but they are stories that are one-sided, that are presented as content generated by a newspaper when actually they’re something else.
Before the First World War, business did not have a very good reputation in mass market publications, especially newspapers. Almost all the stories were negative, and the business leaders would be like Donald Trump, saying, “Why don’t they cover us favorably? They’re always out to get us, whatever is in the newspaper is hostile.” Rockefeller would have felt that way, because it was basically true -- the stories were overwhelmingly critical of big business.
In order to combat that, business leaders had two strategies. The first was to plant stories surreptitiously. Then around 1910, certainly by 1920, they said, “Let’s just go public with it. Let’s stop paying money under the table and we’ll only put public relations announcements with our name on them in the press up front, above board and square with everyone.” And that’s how public relations got started.
Fox: [But what about] in the 18th and 19th century, all these very partisan papers, often supported by politicians.
John: The stories that have gotten a lot of attention [lately] are [along the lines of], “The pope supports Trump.” That sort of thing you’d have Election Day going a long way back.
This election was dirty. The 1860 election was dirty. The 1824 election was dirty. The 1800 election was dirty. You’d be hard-pressed to put them on a scale in terms of which was more mendacious or had less truth content or value for the League of Women Voters-style electorate. There were plenty of false rumors, lies, distortions, political stories that were made up out of whole cloth. That Warren Harding was African-American -- that was circulated. There were Republicans and Democrats who believed that story. And I don’t know what the DNA result [would be].
For much of American history, there was a partisan press. If you were reading the Democratic papers, you’d get one slant on the news, and the Republican papers, another slant on the news. So that’s not unexpected or strange or rare. What is new I think -- if there is anything new, and as a historian I’m not entirely willing to admit that -- is that it’s no longer regionally bounded. Newspapers did have a clear geographical locus. And this kind of fakery knows no boundaries.
A lot of it is being generated, if the stories are accurate, in Macedonia and other parts of the world, which is very strange. It surprises me that it has not gotten more attention, the basic fear that foreign interests are somehow undermining American politics. It’s very strange to me that there hasn’t been more of a fuss about the Russian manipulation of the American electorate. Maybe we’re in a more global age. But these are sort of astonishing charges.
Were there Breitbarts, were there Steve Bannons who were willing to stretch the truth or at least push the permissible bounds of propriety? Of course! There have been in many American elections, and those individuals were sometimes well rewarded. Andrew Jackson in 1828 brought into power a whole constellation of newspaper editors who worked for him, often in capacities that were seen as decidedly disreputable, discreditable and mendacious. They were often from outside of respectable society. There was a resentment of the insiders, a resentment of the elite, a resentment of the established, on the part of these hungry editors.
Fox: Which feels a little familiar.
John: Andrew Jackson was a figure that -- yes he’d been in the Senate, yes he’d been a military figure -- but the thought of having Andrew Jackson as president left the well-bred and intelligent portion of the electorate, as it conceived of itself, aghast. It never could happen.
I ended up lopping off the entire first part of the discussion, which focused on a 19th-century debate over how much “faking” of people's words was permissible in interviews printed in newspapers, because it seemed only tangentially relevant to the subject. It is relevant to how I edited the interview, though! How much faking did I do? Well, I definitely cleaned things up for both of us, fixing verb tenses, editing out false starts and breaking up run-on sentences. In the spots where I added words for context, I put them in brackets. And in the two places where I actually moved text from one part of the conversation to another, I've indicated that with footnotes.
John actually uttered this sentence before my comment about the 18th and 19th centuries, but it seemed to improve readability to have it here.
I moved the Warren Harding story from a few paragraphs lower down because it fit better here.
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