When did the fake news epidemic begin?
Spreading false gossip is as old as language itself. So comes the old cautionary saying “believe half of what you hear and none of what you read.” If there is a struggle for power between two people, then you can bet that misinformation and falsehoods will be spread in the midst of competition, which is also as old as language itself. And you can bet that politics runs rampant with this infection.
In Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North – which was the source material for George Clooney’s movie The Ides of March – its protagonist leaks a story to the media about his Republican opponent that he knows is untrue and says, “I know that, I just want to hear him deny it,” – the goal being that if you have to defend those lies then you’re playing catch-up while we’re moving forward with our message.
The election of 1828 between incumbent John Quincy Adams and challenger Andrew Jackson is widely considered to be one of the dirtiest and vicious Presidential elections in our history.
Insults and exaggerations led to indefensible lies that ranged from adultery to procuring a young American girl to engage in sexual services for the Russian Czar. Adams’ camp used campaign pamphlets to vilify Jackson and his wife Rachel as adulterers. Jackson’s supporters countered by painting Adams as a “corrupt bargainer” who misappropriated tax money. This was the type of mudslinging that molded narrative biases and forced shameless lies that shaped Party conflict.
This reckless negative campaigning can be traced back to the birth of the United States in 1776, but none more obvious than the election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Adams squared off for the presidency.
Thomas Jefferson was still steaming from his loss to Adams in the prior presidential election, stooping to pay the Richmond Examiner to print anti-Federalist and anti-Adams articles, calling Adams a “hideous hermaphrodital character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Adams’ campaign retaliated, calling Jefferson a “mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
The point here is that in the first years of American presidency we see slanderous ad-hominem attacks and cruel disinformation that was proven to be vehemently false. In a way, this set the paradigm for subsequent political elections that wasn’t just supported by the media, but perpetuated unapologetically by them as well.
Enter Yellow Journalism at the turn of the 20th century – a type of journalism that uses headlines to sell more newspapers with its content being inadequate disprovable information.
The use of scare tactics, lavish uses of pictures, pseudoscience, melodramatic underdog sympathy, and of course intentional misinformation bred a rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
The most extreme example of the danger of Yellow Journalism was that this rivalry to sell more papers and create false narratives like anti-Spanish propaganda was arguably the cause of America’s entry into the Spanish-American War.
So does any of this sound familiar yet? History is repeating itself before our very eyes.
With the emergence onslaught of sensationalized “news” entities like alt-right Breitbart and extreme left Occupy Democrats has forced some reputable institutions to sink to their level. Andrew Breitbart founded Breitbart News in 2007, but after his death in March 2012 the site was no longer a news aggregator that linked sites like Fox News and the New York Post, similar to the Drudge Report.
Upon Andrew Breitbart’s death, founding member Steve Bannon became executive chair and grew the site from its paltry 12 staff members into an unstoppable alt-right conservative machine that feasted on desperation and victimization, while perpetuating corruption in the mainstream media and the U.S. government.
People bought into this illusion, but why? Since the invention of television, American news anchors have dominated ratings.
Edward R. Murrow’s protégé Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America for decades.
Cronkite’s voice was so powerful that Lyndon B. Johnson once said of him, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”
Upon his retirement in 1981, a trifecta of anchor legends, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, dominated the airwaves for decades, each in competition with the other two for top ratings. Brokaw passed the torch of the head news anchor for NBC Nightly News to Brian Williams in 2004 and other than a few months in 2007, it was America’s most-watched evening newscast for a decade.
Like the other legends that preceded Williams, he won the trust of millions and became the most trusted man in America.
But on his way to add his face to the Mt. Rushmore of journalism, it all came crumbling down on February 4th, 2015 when he recanted a disproven Iraq War story where he claimed he was traveling in a military helicopter hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG).
Except, there was no RPG and he wasn’t there when it happened – a classic Stephen Glass type of concocted lie.
Six days after recanting his story, Williams was suspended by NBC.
What exactly did this do to the American people who trusted and relied on accurate journalism? Imagine the gravity of your best friend lying to you causing you to reevaluate your relationship. That’s just a figurative microcosm of the extent of irreparable harm Williams did to journalism – forcing Americans to find another news source.
If Brian Williams is corrupt then who can I trust?
Every mainstream media source reported on the Williams’ lie, but this was Breitbart’s time to shine and shield the American people from the corruption.
In an article by John Nolte on February 16, 2015 entitled “THE LIST: 32 LIES AND DISPUTED STORIES NBC NEWS LET BRIAN WILLIAMS TELL FOR A DECADE.”
In that title, it says everything about their agenda. It wasn’t just a slam on the mainstream media; it was tactic to discredit trust. For instance, some of those “32 LIES” were separate details Williams gave for the Iraq RPG helicopter hit, meaning that it was the same lie he or NBC Nightly News reiterated for nearly 12 years. It was sensationalized to push an anti-media agenda.
Is that misleading? Of course it is.
But is Brian Williams’ lie indefensible? Also, true.
Between Williams’ confession and the 2016 campaign season, Breitbart News became a household name. And do you think it’s because of excellence in journalism on the part of Breitbart or because Williams, and unbeknownst to NBC, single-handedly and inadvertently discredited the entire mainstream media with that one lie?
~ By Michael Strong