But let’s not leave out the technology. Leaks may be the time-tested tactic for manipulating the press, but the new digital toolbox has given third-party players—government, industry, politicians, you name ’em—sleeker weapons and greater power to turn the authority of the press to their own ends: to disseminate propaganda, disinformation, advertising, politically strategic misinformation—to in effect use the media to distort reality. Besides a vast and sophisticated degree of diligence, the rising generation of journalists would be wise to observe two rules for working in this new environment: Beware of profiteers and hyper-patriots, and check out a little history—lest it repeat itself.
Fake news has been with us for a long time. Documented cases predate the modern media, reaching as far into the past as a bogus eighth century edict said to be the pope-friendly words of the Roman emperor Constantine. There are plenty of reports of forgeries and trickeries in British newspapers in the eighteenth century. But the actual term “fake news”—two delicious little darts of malice (and a headline-ready sneer if ever there was one)—seems to have arisen in late nineteenth century America, when a rush of emerging technologies intersected with newsgathering practices during a boom time for newspapers.
The impact of new technology is hard to overestimate. The telegraph was followed by trans-Atlantic and transcontinental cables, linotype, high-speed electric presses and halftone photo printing—wireless gave way to the telephone. The nation, doubled in population and literacy from Civil War days, demanded a constant supply of fresh news, so the media grew additional limbs as fast as it could. Newly minted news bureaus and press associations recruited boy and girl reporters from classified ads—“Reporting And Journalism Taught Free Of Charge”—and sent their cubs off to dig up hot stories, truth be damned, to sell to the dailies.
By the turn of the century, the preponderance of fakery was reaching disturbing proportions, according to the critic and journalist J.B. Montgomery-M’Govern. “Fake journalism,” he wrote in Arena, an influential monthly of the period, “is resorted to chiefly by news bureaus, press associations and organizations of that sort, which supply nearly all the metropolitan Sunday papers and many of the dailies with their most sensational ‘stories.’”
Montgomery-M’Govern delivers a taxonomy of fakers’ techniques, including the use of the “stand-for,” in which a reputable person agrees to an outrageous lie for the attendant free publicity; the “combine,” in which a group of reporters concoct and then verify a false story; the “fake libel” plant, in which editors are duped by conspirators into running false and litigious articles; the “alleged cable news” story, in which so-called “foreign reports,” dashed off in the newsroom or a downtown press association, are topped with a foreign dateline and published as truth. The editors of huge Sunday editions, with their big appetites for the juiciest stuff (what M-M calls “Sunday stories”) naturally set the bar lower for veracity than they did for hot-blooded emotional impact.
Have I mentioned that news was suddenly big money? By the century’s turn, the tallest buildings in New York and San Francisco were both owned by newspapers. And the business became so hypercompetitive that some reporters not only made things up but stole those fake scoops and “specials” from one another with impunity. The Chicago Associated-Press fell into a trap set by a suspicious client, who set loose a rumor at two in the morning that President Grover Cleveland had been assassinated! True to its reputation, Chicago AP ran with it—no fact-checking here—and put it up on the wires. The assassination story ran in newspapers all over the country the next day, amid much chuckling and finger pointing.
The further away the newsworthy event, the more likely it was to involve fakery. “Bogus Foreign News&rdquo ran the headline in The Washington Post of February 22, 1903, but the subheads that followed it are so illustrative as to deserve full reproduction below:
POPE HAS DIED TWENTY-TWO TIMES IN FIVE YEARS
YELLOWNESS ACROSS THE SEA
AMERICANS OUTSTRIPPED IN THIS SORT OF THING BY ENGLISH AND GERMAN MANUFACTURERS-EDITORS VICTIMS BECAUSE REPORTS ARE SOMETIMES TRUE-RIVALRY FOR NEWS AMONG ORIENTAL ENGLISH DAILIES
It was a global problem. Even twenty true words cabled from London about an Indian Ocean hurricane could grow to a story ten times that length, padded out with imaginary details and encyclopedia facts. Mo’ words, mo’ money.