Americans Have Never Wanted the Truth

A new history of fakery in U.S. journalism shows the public has always had an appetite for fake news.

By , a longtime executive at the intersection of journalism, media, and technology who currently serves as executive director of Aspen Digital.
A black-and-white photo of soldiers in trench coats and hats read newspapers.
A black-and-white photo of soldiers in trench coats and hats read newspapers.
Soldiers from the 42nd Infantry Division, several of whom read newspapers, stand aboard the U.S. troop transport USS President Lincoln in October 1917. US Navy/Interim Archives/Getty Images

Do Americans even want the news media to tell them the truth? After reading journalist and historian Andie Tucher’s important new history of fakery in U.S. journalism, I’m not so sure.

From the very first American newspaper in 1690, sham journalism—for power, profit, politics, entertainment, or mischief—has held center stage in U.S. media. Permutations varied from the penny press in the 1830s, to the yellow press in the 1890s, to the tabloids in the 1920s, to much of Fox News today—all feeding entertainment, propaganda, and sensational conspiracy theories to a hungry public.

As the United States faces an ongoing pandemic, reverberations from an insurrection, and a devastating war in Europe, the stakes for democracy could not be higher. More than 100 years ago, journalist and critic Walter Lippmann lamented that “the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism.” He may as well have been speaking of today. The overwhelming volume of misinformation these days might feel like an aberration, but as Tucher makes clear, it is not. The U.S. public has always been all too eager to consume narratives that titillate, distract, or accord with what they want to believe—true or not.

Do Americans even want the news media to tell them the truth? After reading journalist and historian Andie Tucher’s important new history of fakery in U.S. journalism, I’m not so sure.

From the very first American newspaper in 1690, sham journalism—for power, profit, politics, entertainment, or mischief—has held center stage in U.S. media. Permutations varied from the penny press in the 1830s, to the yellow press in the 1890s, to the tabloids in the 1920s, to much of Fox News today—all feeding entertainment, propaganda, and sensational conspiracy theories to a hungry public.

A book cover that shows a historic photo of children holding newspapers
A book cover that shows a historic photo of children holding newspapers

Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History, Andie Tucher, Columbia University Press, 384 pp., $28, March 2022

As the United States faces an ongoing pandemic, reverberations from an insurrection, and a devastating war in Europe, the stakes for democracy could not be higher. More than 100 years ago, journalist and critic Walter Lippmann lamented that “the present crisis of Western democracy is a crisis of journalism.” He may as well have been speaking of today. The overwhelming volume of misinformation these days might feel like an aberration, but as Tucher makes clear, it is not. The U.S. public has always been all too eager to consume narratives that titillate, distract, or accord with what they want to believe—true or not.

False news almost entirely dominated the media market for the first 200 years of the U.S. press. It was not until the turn of the last century that something we might recognize as responsible journalism in the public interest took hold. Tucher tells lively anecdotes from the 19th and 20th centuries, clearly relishing the more outrageous fictions masquerading as news. Along the way, we learn some surprising tidbits about the history of U.S. journalism, such as the birth of the interview: an American media invention that dates back only to 1836 when the New York Herald, covering the murder of a prostitute, featured a verbatim conversation with a local madam. Unfortunately, like much of the media at the time, the reporter’s goal was to be as sensational as possible. When the madam proved not quite salacious, he filled his piece with made-up quotes.

While the public did not seem to mind a little truth stretching, some stories went too far. The Boston Globe’s riveting details about an ax-wielding Lizzie Borden gripped the city in 1892. It was a “spectacular story” that was also “spectacularly untrue,” in Tucher’s words, based on the fabrication of a private detective who was paid $500 for the grisly and phony details about Borden’s parents’ murder. The maligned Borden was ultimately acquitted, and the Boston Globe issued a rare front-page apology.

Toward the late 19th century, a different approach to journalism—one with professional standards like accuracy, fairness, independence, and accountability—finally gained traction. Figures such as legendary Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis gave voice to the shift in 1871, referring to contemporary media practice as “a thoroughly contemptible business, which honorable journalists should shun as they would shun contamination.” He was not alone. Ida B. Wells’s rigorous and unflinching reporting on the spate of lynching in the American South in the 1890s not only broke racial barriers but journalistic ones as well. She was unsparing in documenting the propaganda about Black men raping white women that served as the heinous pretext to murders. Her reporting, which appeared in pamphlets and Black-owned newspapers, was not welcome in most corners. Even the New York Times referred to her as a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress” and liar.

Professional journalism would truly gain momentum in the 20th century, and with it, as Tucher documents, “The burden of determining truth was shifting from the reader to the newspaper and from the citizen to the expert authority.” Throughout the century, the perception of journalism as reliable and authoritative broadly took hold, at least by white Americans whose perspective was usually reflected in such outlets.

That is not to say that the fakery ever went away. Two world wars introduced new challenges of balancing truth telling and patriotism, even for accountable news operations such as the Associated Press, where one reporter staged a photograph of U.S. medics helping a wounded soldier in Tunisia in 1943. It ran all over the world before the stunt was unmasked.

Trust in media would peak in 1976. It’s been downhill ever since.

The modern era brought world-altering new forms of media along and with it, new means to deceive. As Tucher puts it, “New communication technologies also inevitably undergo tryouts as tools for faking journalism.” Photojournalism was initially useless for newsgathering given the size of the cameras and long exposures, so photos were staged. Moving images would suffer the same fate at first.

Even radio had a rough go. The very first live radio feed, of the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, went off the rails when an assistant took over the microphone after his boss stepped out of the room. When proceedings got too dull, the industrious deputy chose to liven them with a made-up description of a fistfight breaking out on the convention floor. A few years later, a fictional radio drama would cross a different line. Director Orson Welles’s 1938 production of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds on CBS Radio never pretended to be news, but listeners who missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast may have believed they were listening to live coverage of an alien invasion. CBS Radio was flooded with calls, but ironically, reports of the public response to the fake story were themselves largely invented, Tucher writes. There is no evidence of suicides or streets clogged with terrorized citizens, as some reported.

The rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s instigated a new era in which assaulting the media as the source of the truth became a political and ideological weapon. With his full-throated demonization of the press, McCarthy and his adherents “set the terms that retain their power to this day: truth is about partisan advantage, not reality,” Tucher writes. “Those who can control the journalists control the truth. And proving your opponents to be fake is a longer-lasting and more devastating tactic than proving them to be simply wrong.” There is a straight line from McCarthy to former Presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Although the modern age brought groundbreaking reporting, such as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, trust in media would peak in 1976. It’s been downhill ever since. Fabulists like Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair; sloppy sourcing from journalists like Dan Rather; and the willfully wrong reporting in the runup to the Iraq War were surely black eyes to the mainstream media. But far more harmful was the political weaponization of “fake news.” In 2004, an anonymous advisor to then-President George W. Bush, widely believed to be Karl Rove, spoke derisively of the “reality-based community” and its belief that “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” He went on to predict the Trump era: “We create our own reality.”

The conspiracy theory would soon become mainstream in the Obama era. Although not a new concept, in the past, “those theories tended to lurk on the fringes of public discourse,” as Tucher puts it. “Now they took a central place, floated by a potential major-party rival, openly abetted by some of the most powerful figures in the national media, and amplified by vigorous social media campaigns.” In particular, the birther conspiracy theory, which falsely insisted that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, became a rallying cry for a nativist sector of the Republican Party that would rise to power a few years later. Never mind that Obama showed his full authentic birth certificate to the public; evidence is no match for the truth in the era of Facebook, Fox News talk shows, Infowars, and those who attempt to do their own research online.

Oddly, Tucher does not dwell much on the impact of social media and radicalized far-right media. In fairness to her, it’s a story that is still being written, but the monumental role of social media in driving mis- and disinformation into the stratosphere represents an existential threat to communities of color, to public health, and to the future of democracy and the planet.

Today, as local journalism continues to disappear from communities, evidence is increasingly losing ground to fantasy. According to a recent poll, 42 percent of Americans do not believe—or are not sure—that President Joe Biden legitimately won the election. Six out of 10 people think U.S. democracy is in crisis. Tucher describes “the stark polarization of the citizenry into factions that barely speak the same language … the routine demonization of experts, expertise, and the very idea of truth as anything other than someone else’s opinion.” With U.S. towns turning into news deserts—or worse, hotbeds of phony “pink slime” websites, closed Facebook groups, and barely moderated Nextdoor listservs—the vacuum of evidence-based accountable journalism has allowed a deep polarization of the country.

Where do we go from here? Tucher has no real answers. Instead, she takes aim at a growing movement in journalism circles that suggests that the 20th-century concept of journalistic objectivity is no longer meeting the moment. For a new generation of journalists, the traditional notion of impartiality is neither possible nor desirable. Reporters, in their view, should not pretend to have no opinion on matters of public interest but rather should bring their lived experiences and points of view openly into their reporting as a way to build trust.

For Tucher, this argument goes too far. “When it’s carried out correctly, genuine professional objectivity still offers news consumers an alternative increasingly rare in the chaotic, hyperpartisan scrum that is today’s media landscape: a declaration that the truth is contingent not on emotion or individual whim or partisan mandate but on evidence tested through the use of dedicated processes and tools,” she writes.

Maybe. But as more than 300 years of U.S. journalism history makes clear, that scrum may be exactly what the American people want.

Vivian Schiller is a longtime executive at the intersection of journalism, media, and technology and has held executive roles at some of the most respected media organizations in the world, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, NBC News, and Twitter. She currently serves as executive director of Aspen Digital, a program of the Aspen Institute. Twitter: @vivian

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