Before Jon Stewart

Fake news is back, but our tolerance for it isn't what it was before journalism donned the mantle of authority.
March 1, 2007

Just before his famous confrontation with Tucker Carlson on CNN ’s Crossfire two years ago, Jon Stewart was introduced as “the most trusted name in fake news.” No argument there. Stewart, as everyone knows, is the host of The Daily Show, a satirical news program that has been running since 1996 and has spun off the equally funny and successful Colbert Report. Together these shows are broadcast (back to back) more than twenty-three times a week, “from Comedy Central’s World News Headquarters in New York,” thus transforming a modest side-street studio on Manhattan’s West Side into the undisputed locus of fake news.

The trope itself sounds so modern, so hip, so Gawkerish when attached to the likes of Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or dropped from the lips of the ex-Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor Tina Fey, who declared as she departed SNL, “I’m out of the fake news business.” For the rest of us, we’re knee deep in the fake stuff and sinking fast. It comes at us from every quarter of the media—old and new—not just as satire but disguised as the real thing, secretly paid for by folks who want to remain in the shadows. And though much of it is clever, it’s not all funny.

Fake news arrives on doorsteps around the world every day, paid for by You, Time magazine Person of the Year, a.k.a. Joe and Jane Citizen, in one way or another. Take for instance, the U.S. government’s 2005 initiative to plant “positive news” in Iraqi newspapers, part of a $300 million U.S. effort to sway public opinion about the war. And remember Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist who was hired on the down low to act as a $240,000 sock puppet for the president’s No Child Left Behind program? Williams’s readers had no idea he was a paid propagandist until the Justice Department started looking into allegations of fraud in his billing practices.

Fake news has had its lush innings. The Bush administration has worked hand-in-glove with big business to make sure of it. Together, they’ve credentialed fringe scientists and fake experts and sent them in to muddy scientific debates on global warming, stem cell research, evolution, and other matters. And as if that weren’t enough, the Department of Health and Human Services got caught producing a series of deceptive video news releases— VNRs in p.r.-industry parlance—touting the administration’s Medicare plan. The segments, paid political announcements really, ended with a fake journalist signing off like a real one—“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting,” and they ran on local news shows all over the country without disclosure. All of this fakery taken together, it may be fair to say that the nation’s capital has been giving Comedy Central a run for its money as the real home of fake news.

But let’s dispense with the satire, whose intentions are as plain as Colbert’s arched eyebrow. And let’s step around the notion of fake news as wrong news: The 1948 presidential election blunder “Dewey Defeats Truman,&rdquo for instance, or even the New York Post’s howler from the 2004 campaign, “Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate.&rdquo Those are honest mistakes, set loose by overweening editors perhaps, but never with the intention to deceive. That wasn’t always the case, as we shall see. In the early days of American journalism, newspapers trafficked in intentional, entertaining hoaxes, a somewhat puzzling period in our history. In modern times, hoaxes have migrated from the mainstream papers to the tabloid outriders like the old National Enquirer, the new Globe, and the hoaxiest of them all, The Weekly World News, purveyor of the “Bat Boy” cover stories.

The mainstream press covers itself with the mantle of authority now. Six of ten Americans polled in 2005 trusted “the media” to report the news “fully, fairly and accurately,” a slight decline from the high-water mark of seven-in-ten during the Woodward-and-Bernstein seventies. What’s more, in a veracity dogfight between the press and the government, Americans say they trust the media by a margin of nearly two to one.

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But here’s a question: Can we continue to trust ourselves? Are we prepared for the global, 24-7 fake news cage match that will dominate journalism in the twenty-first century? Let’s call it Factual Fantasy: Attack of the Ax-Grinding Insiders. The boundaries have vanished, the gloves are off, our opponents are legion and fueled with espresso. Both CNN and The New York Times were used by the U.S. military as unwitting co-conspirators in spreading false information, a tactic known as psychological operations, part of an effort to convince Americans the invasion of Iraq was a necessary piece of the war on terror.

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:



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.

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.

“Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag,” Mencken lamented. “Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day,” the purported seventy-fifth birthday of the bathtub. Mencken’s piece provided a vivid and full history of the introduction of the tub to American life. It singled out for praise Millard Fillmore for his role in bringing one of the first tubs to the White House, giving it “recognition and respectability in the United States.”

“A Neglected Anniversary” was so finely rendered that it literally sprang back to life—like a reanimated mummy—and found its way into print dozens of times, criticized, analyzed, and repeated as a real chapter in American history.

Hoaxes like this seem so Colbert now, like mutant cousins to his notion of “truthiness.” But hoaxers are historically not comedians; they are, like Mencken, journalists who write entertaining stuff that sounds vaguely true, even though it’s not, for editors who are usually in on the joke. The hoaxing instinct infected newsrooms throughout the early days of modern newspapers to a degree that most of us find puzzling today. Newspapers contained hundreds, if not thousands of hoaxes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them undocumented fakes in obscure Western weeklies. The subjects were oddball pets and wild weather, giants, mermaids, men on the moon, petrified people (quite a few of those), and (my favorite) the Swiss Navy. As a novice editor at the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise, a young Mark Twain put his talent to the test with a hoax of hoaxes. “I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire,” he wrote. He called it “A Petrified Man.&rdquo

Who knew? The twinning of news and entertainment that plagues us today grew not from some corporate greedhead instinct of the go-go eighties, but from our own weird history. The reasons for hoaxing were mostly mercenary: for the publisher, it was to fill column inches and bring in eyeballs. For the journalist, it was sport, a freelance fee or a ploy to keep his job. Strange to say, readers didn’t seem to mind too much.

The first major fake news event of the modern media age was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. A series of articles began appearing in the New York Sun on August 25, the late-summer brainchild of its ambitious publisher, Benjamin Day. Day wanted to move papers, like every publisher, and came up with a novel method. He began publishing a series of articles, allegedly reprinted from a nonexistent scientific journal, about Sir John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer on his way to the Cape of Good Hope to test a powerful new telescope.

What Herschel saw on the moon was… Life! Not just flora and fauna but living men—hairy, yellow-faced guys, four feet tall with enormous wings that “possessed great expansion and were similar in structure of those of the bat.” It was all too much, but New Yorkers had to see for themselves and the Sun’s circ hit a new high of 15,000. Even after its men-in-the-moon story was revealed to be a hoax, the paper retained its popularity with readers.

Edgar Allan Poe, famous but destitute in 1844, wrote another well-known hoax for the Sun. “The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!” Poe’s story began, and it went on to describe a lighter-than-air balloon trip that wouldn’t actually take place for another sixty years. Thirty years later, at the behest of its publisher, James Gordon Bennett Jr., the New York Herald ran what’s often been called the Central Park Zoo Hoax. “Escaped Animals Roam Streets of Manhattan” the headline warned. The article maintained that twenty-seven people were dead and 200 injured in terrible scenes of mutilation. State militiamen were called in to control the situation, and sensible New Yorkers barricaded themselves in their homes.

In 1910, The Washington Post waxed nostalgic over the old men-on-the moon hoax, with a short item under a no-nonsense headline: “This Was A Famous Hoax.” In fact, that kind of warm retrospective began to appear as an occasional column or feature, illustrating a growing trend among newspapers to look back with a smile on the bad old days of great hoaxes. In the intervening years, the newspaper business had grown up into the Fourth Estate; hoaxes, for better or worse, were a part of its wild-child adolescence. By 1937, it was pretty much over, at least according to Marvin H. Creager, the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors who addressed the group’s fifteenth annual convention. “The day of the fake and the hoax…seems to have passed,” he said, “and with it the reporters and editors who delighted in perpetrating them.”

Creager, speaking to his confident colleagues at a time of rising circulation, added, “The reporter with a box of tricks is out of place in the newspaper world today.”

Times change and so do the tricksters. The newspaper, the first mass-marketed medium to enter American living rooms, was a jack of all trades, a witty parlor guest with a deck of cards. Over time, mass distribution of movies, radio, TV, and the Internet arrived to entertain Americans and eventually to eat the lunch of the great newspaper dynasties. From the days of the Yellow Press onward, publishers began to see themselves as public servants and guardians of truth; editors learned the wisdom of marking off news columns from opinion pages and imparting a higher level of veracity even to soft features. Hoaxes? The Fourth Estate has no use for hoaxers, even of the pathetic dysfunctional variety; our tribal councils cast out fabulists like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass with great harrumphing fanfare.

Today, people expect the news media to give them relevant, accurate information. Serious journalists have for decades thought of themselves as the descendants of muckrakers, reformers, and watchdogs.

But hold the applause for a moment. This presumption of good faith makes us the perfect marks for the new agenda-based fakers. Just last year, the Center for Media and Democracy identified sixty-nine news stations that ran clearly marked government- or industry-produced VNRs as unbiased news during a ten-month period. Many station managers, it was reported, even disguised those advertisements to look like their reporters’ own work and offered no public disclosure.

Doctored pictures from war zones? The Los Angeles Times ran one in 2003, and Reuters ran one last year. Grassroots organizations with Orwellian names like Project Protect, funded not by conservation-minded voters, but the timber industry? The investigative reporter Paul Thacker brought that one to light, along the way revealing that a Fox News science reporter named Steven Milloy had undisclosed ties to the oil and tobacco industries. Milloy discredited reports of the danger of secondhand smoke as “junk science” on foxnews.com, never letting on he was on the payroll of Phillip Morris.

Welcome to journalism’s latest transitional phase, where another rush of technology is changing the business in ways not imaginable ten years ago. Picture, cell, and satellite phones, wireless Internet, cheap digital cameras, Photoshop, and blogger software make it easier to deliver the news and also easier to fake it. If you’re the kind of person who thinks there ought to be a law, there is one, at least for the conduct of our elected officials. Federal statutes prohibit the use of funding for “publicity or propaganda purposes” not authorized by Congress. The ban seems to have been observed as closely as speeding laws in recent years. For the rest of us, however, it’s what they call a self-policing situation.

Late last year, Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who took undisclosed payments to promote President Bush’s education agenda, settled his case with the Justice Department. The feds had pursued him not for propaganda violations, though they might have, but under the False Claims Act, for false or fraudulent billing. A weary Armstrong agreed to repay $34,000 to the government and said he was happy to be done with it. He admits no wrongdoing and has committed no crime.

In the exposure, however, he lost his syndicated column and suffered an eighteen-month investigation. The notoriety of his case jump-started a government-wide inquiry into the use of fake news as propaganda, which may actually have done some good. According to USA Today “the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s nonpartisan watchdog, in 2005 found that the deal violated a ban on ‘covert propaganda.’”

But make no mistake; it’s a small, isolated victory. In a time of falling circulation, diminishing news budgets, and dismantled staffs, the fakers are out there, waiting for their opportunities to exploit the authority that modern journalism conveys. Some of us, I fear, aren’t doing all we can to help readers and viewers know the difference between the fake and the honest take. In early January, The Huffington Post reported that The Washington Post’s Web site was talking to Comedy Central about enlisting The Daily Show staff to cover the 2008 presidential campaign. Jon Stewart, the elder statesman of fake news, working for The Washington Post? There was no confirmation of a deal at press time.

So, here’s my totally mock serious signoff: If General Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, who has already appeared once on The Daily Show, returned to announce that he had captured Osama bin Laden, would that be fake news? And what would we call it when it ran in The Washington Post?

Just asking.

Robert Love is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the executive editor of Best Life.