The loudest whoops at the fake news fiesta were shouted at William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Hearst, the legendary publisher and proud leading light of the “yellow press,” propounded two combustible ideas at the height of his influence in the late 1890s. First, he believed in the “journalism of action,” an activist press solving crimes, supporting charities, investigating corruption—taking charge in the arenas of national and international affairs. Second, he held unvarnished truth to be a somewhat negotiable commodity, especially when its subversion could lead to profit or power.
By 1897, the stage was set for a little international combustion. Cuba, ruled as a Spanish colony since 1511, had grown an insurgency, which was put down with terrific cruelty by its European overlords. In the U.S. there was a growing sentiment for a free and independent Cuba, along with the feeling that we should be mobilized for war to help out. Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Pulitzer, and Hearst, among many others, felt that aggression was the proper response, but President McKinley was slow to act. And so began the first privately funded propaganda push to war in modern media history.
It kicked off in earnest on February 15, 1898, when the warship USS Maine, docked in Havana Harbor, exploded, killing 266 crewmen. Hearst first placed an ad offering “$50,000 Reward for the Detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage!&rdquo He then threw all of his paper’s resources at covering the explosion and its investigation, sending boatloads of reporters and illustrators to Cuba and Key West. Hearst’s Journal—along with Pulitzer’s World—not only produced the bulk of the news coming out of Cuba, but within days began spinning it to blame Spain for the explosion.
Competing papers cried foul! “Nothing so disgraceful as the behavior of these two newspapers has ever been known in the history of journalism,” wrote E.L. Godkin in the New York Evening Post. He alleged “gross misrepresentation of the facts, deliberate intervention of tales calculated to excite the public and wanton recklessness in construction of headlines.”
Nevertheless it was headlines that propelled the United States to war with Spain, headlines that swayed the populace with somewhat dubious evidence. War was declared and in two weeks it was over; we had freed Cuba, gained three new territories, and ended Spain’s influence in the Western Hemisphere.
Okay, headlines can lie, but can you better determine the truth in a photo or the voice of a trusted colleague? With the advent of faster and easier halftone reproduction in the 1920s came the photo-driven tabloid newspapers like the New York Illustrated Daily News. In 1924 the most tabloidy of all tabloids arrived, the New York Evening Graphic (nicknamed the Porno-graphic), which launched the gossip careers of Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell and the vaunted Composograph photo. The Composograph was actually a technique that combined real and staged pictures to depict events where no cameras had ventured. The Graphic’s editors had a blast with the pop star Rudolph Valentino, documenting the singer’s unsuccessful surgery, funeral, and his meeting in heaven with the departed Enrico Caruso—the headline: “Rudy Meets Caruso! Tenor’s Spirit Speaks!&rdquo
Telephones meant faster, more accurate newsgathering at a time when speed was prized and “extra” editions meant extra profits. The telephone necessitated the creation of two-man urban reporting teams—leg men and rewrite men—which irritated H.L. Mencken to no end. Journalism, he wrote in 1927,
is in a low state, mainly due to the decay of the old-time reporter, the heart and soul of the American newspapers of the last generation. The current rush to get upon the streets with hot news, even at the cost of printing only half of it, has pretty well destroyed all his old qualities. He no longer writes what he has seen and heard; he telephones it to a remote and impersonal rewrite man….But it must be manifest that, hanging on his telephone, maybe miles away from the event he is describing, he is completely unable to get into his description any of the vividness of a thing actually seen. He does the best he can, but that best is to the reporting of a fairer era as a mummy is to a man.
Of course Mencken’s selective memory harks back to the glory days of yellow journalism, when the worst (or best) fakery in history took place, but never mind that. He seems to have completely forgotten his own role ten years earlier in a great classic newspaper hoax, “A Neglected Anniversary,” a fake history of the bathtub, which ran in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917.