The News Has Always Been Fake
Development of the Media: Part 1.
Perhaps most disconcerting about our fake news era is that some think that it’s ever been different. The social media posts of “I remember when the news reported the news…” ignore the fact that the media, from its inception, has always been desperate for revenue, and agenda driven, and that agenda has rarely been the unvarnished truth.
Everyone’s favorite punching bag is Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who, as Moscow Bureau Chief in the 1920s and 30s, dispatched the glories of the Soviet revolution to the readers of the Upper East Side. Of course, amidst his assessments of Soviet progress, he neglected to mention the millions starving to death (possibly >5 million in Ukraine alone) or any of the bounty of terror harvested from the works of Marx. Duranty even won the Pulitzer in 1932 for his Soviet reporting, right as Stalin’s bloodlust was reaching its crimson apex.
It’s not relevant that it took years for the truth to out or decades more for the Times to confess their role as co-conspirator in Stalin’s madness or forever for the Pulitzer committee to concede any error in awarding Duranty journalism’s highest award for essentially acting as a public relations tool in the Soviet’s vast workshop of bloody tools. (The Times has admitted that Duranty was essentially a Dictaphone for Soviet propaganda; the Pulitzer committee denies to this day any error in judgement.)
Confessions of error are nice, but the real tragedy lies within the minds of those New Yorkers in the early 1930s who read the New York Times. Such a reader would have discovered that while there were some issues with Russia’s transformation into a modern industrial union, progress was tremendous and success was evident to all. The paper of record would have you convinced that the USSR was more success than failure and certainly not the massacre of farmers and dissenters that we now know it was. This is largely the reason why so many Americans were communist sympathizers in the 1930s (nearly every artist was) and why blacklists and The House Un-American Activities Committee and red-baiting even existed. So much of the post WWII red scare trauma America endured began with the gilded propaganda published in the New York Times. So many in the 1940s thought communism was good precisely because that’s what the New York Times told them.
And yet the Times’ duplicity is not unique; the history of the media is more lies than truth. Kierkegaard railed against the newspapers of 1840s Denmark as purveyors of decadence and catalysts of decay. Later studies of the riots that gripped the U.K. in the early 1980s observed that national newspaper coverage could be accorded some blame for their genesis. U.K. manufacturing collapsed in the 1970s (imagine Detroit sweeping the U.K.’s industrial cities), and many who had been merely poor were now destitute. Local newspapers tended to cover the issues fairly, but national (e.g. London) papers tended to rather stoke racial animosity, which ignited minority youths into rioting and engendered a problem that was more complex and difficult for the government to solve. National papers transformed economic issues into race wars. The U.K. riots (Handsworth, Brixton, Toxteth, etc.) are a good (probably the best) argument for local (as opposed to national) media: local media reporting on local events are more likely to be held accountable to the truth. Reporting on events that occur far away leaves room for hyperbole. National media can conjure phantom issues out of distant events for monetary gain.
Familiarity breeds contempt for falsehoods. The lesson is obvious yet profound. If your local newspaper prints local news that’s patently false, a critical mass of local readers will know. But if the New York Times prints lies about Syria, their readers likely have no idea that such news is false. So as journalists (and others) decry the demise of local media (largely newspapers), it seems that the enemy of local news is national news.
Perhaps more disturbing than the penchant to remake the truth into something more valuable is that truth has never been a motivating ideal behind the news anywhere except for colonial New England. European newspapers — nor any others — have never had a history of objective reporting. Most of the time they don’t even pretend. The concept of reporting some kind of objective truth and being a responsible member of the community — as opposed to producing media to advance the agenda of a small group or simply for profit — is the product of the Puritan ethos and never meaningful manifested outside of the Puritan colonies.
In the seventeenth century, the newspaper was still something of a curiosity. The idea that there was daily, or even weekly, news to be consumed would have seemed peculiar, and even if such news existed, there wasn’t a ready way to obtain it. There were no journalists or other conduits for information to be readily supplied to a print shop, and there certainly weren’t editors or fact-checkers to receive the news. And print advertisements had not yet been invented, so such a publication could only be financially supported by subscription or vanity. Other publications were regularly supported by advance subscription, but in those cases, the topic and publication details were also known in advance. It would have been difficult to get subscribers for a publication whose content was unknowable at the time of the subscription. And so the first questions facing the idea of the newspaper was whether anyone who made news, whatever that may be, would divulge what he knew to a stranger so that it may be conveyed to countless other strangers, and whether there was a reading public that was interested in the activities of strangers. Whether there existed a reading public at all was entirely another question, compounded by the debatable notion that such a public would pay for what may amount to the same gossip one could hear at a number of taverns or loitering after church. Despite these existential questions, on Thursday, September 25, 1690, Publick Occurences both Forreign and Domestick was printed with the masthead “Boston, Printed by R. Pierce, for Benjamin Harris, at the London-Coffee-House. 1690. Numb. I.” Benjamin Harris was exactly the kind of dissenter who would bring dissent to the press. In London, Harris had published Domestick Intelligence: Or News both from City and Country from 1679 to 1681. Domestick Intelligence was a speculative venture that gambled on the reading public’s interest in local news. At the outset of Domestick Intelligence, Harris published the pamphlet Appeal from the Country to the City by Charles Blount. Appeal from the Country was a startling prognostication of how terrifying life would be should James, Duke of York ever become king. Prior to the Act of Anne, printers were held liable for everything they printed, so Harris was convicted of sedition and ordered to pay a fine beyond his means, which was a convenient way to sentence a man to jail without sentencing him to jail. And Appeal from the Country was convicted of treason and burned by the London hangman (yes, the newspaper was burned). Benjamin Harris was released from prison, but then things got unbelievably worse for him; James, Duke of York became King James II on February 6, 1685. Harris packed up his print shop and caught the next ship sailing for the distant western horizon.
So it’s not surprising that Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurences was printed without any kind of approval from either church or state, and it’s also not surprising that the authorities responded quite vigorously against this new thing so untethered from church and state authority. And yet, there in Boston in 1690, existed the first independent newspaper — something that would have been foreign in most cities around the world from London to Beijing. Publick Occurences was a multi-page newspaper, which was fairly unique as most publications at that time that resembled anything like a newspaper were printed on a single sheet of paper; Publick Occurences was intended to be printed monthly, or “if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener.” The newspaper was quickly rebuked by the British colonial authorities, who, four days after its first publication, issued an order stating:
Whereas some have lately presumed to Print and Disperse a Pamphlet, Entitled, Publick Occurrences, both Forreign and Domestick: Boston, Thursday, Septemb. 25th, 1690. Without the least Privity and Countenace of Authority. The Governour and Council having had the perusal of said Pamphlet, and finding that therein contained Reflections of a very high nature: As also sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports, do hereby manifest and declare their high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet, and Order that the same be Suppressed and called in; strickly forbidden any person or persons for the future to Set forth any thing in Print without License first obtained from those that are or shall be appointed by the Government to grant the same.
It may be tempting to conclude that the “high Resentment” is the result of the ironic Puritan disdain for dissenting opinions, but a review of that first newspaper reveals the dangers of which an independent printing press was capable.
Publick Occurences begins with an announcement of its purposes:
First, That Memorable Occurrences of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are. Secondly, That people everywhere may better understand the Circumstances of Public Affairs, both abroad and at home; which may not only direct their Thoughts at all times, but at some times also to assist their Businesses and Negotiations.
Thirdly, That something may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next [edition].
Moreover, the Publisher of these Occurrences is willing to engage, that whereas, there are many False Reports, maliciously made, and spread among us, if any well-minded person will be at the pains to trace any such false Report so far as to find out and Convict the First Raiser of it, he will in this Paper (unless just Advice be given to the contrary) expose the Name of such person as A malicious Raiser of a false Report. It is suppos’d that none will dislike this Proposal, but such as intend to be guilty of so villainous a Crime.
The stated purpose is honorable and aimed at promoting the public good. The paper starts with an account of “Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth” who, despite having lost many of their own in aiding battles against the French, still managed a good harvest. The paper moves on to report a suicide (“he was dead with his feet near toughing [touching] the Ground”), various “Epidemical Fevers” and the spread of small-pox (“and ’Tis not easy to relate the Trouble and Sorrow that poor Boston has felt by this Epidemical Contagion”), and fires throughout the city (“Altho’ Boston did a few weeks ago meet with a Disaster by Fire, which consumed about twenty Houses”). Smallpox and fire were ever-present hazards, and one recent fire resulted in much loss, including “Another was that the best furnished PRINTING-PRESS, of those few that we know of in America, was lost; a loss not presently to be repaired.” That first edition then recounted some tales of the French court, including the rumor that Louis XIV “used to lie with the Son’s Wife. He has got all the Huguenots, and all the dissatisfied Papists, with the great force of the D[uke] of Lorraine, and are now against him, resolving to depose him of his life and Kingdom.” Louis XIV had two wives, perhaps a dozen mistresses and two dozen illegitimate children, but it’s unlikely that he slept with his only son’s wife, Anna Maria, who was 29-years-old when she died five months before Publick Occurences was printed.
The newspaper doesn’t have individual articles, titles or headers of any kind, but rather is a single continuous narration of “Publick Occurences,” though how rumors about the French King’s licentiousness is a public occurrence is likely one of the “doubtful and uncertain Reports” that concerned the authorities. But the bulk of the paper was composed of various reports about “those miserable Savages,” the Amerindians. Sometimes they acted in concert with the French: “Where the Indians and French seized her, and Butchered the Master, and several of the men: but that himself who belonged unto the Ship’s Crew, being a Jersey-man, was more favourably used, & found at length an advantage to make his Escape.” Other times they acted against the French: “having slain several of the French, and brought home several Prisoners, whom they used in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve.” The “too barbarous” may refer to cannibalism. Reports included ways in which Amerindians were lazy and untrustworthy: “it was found that the Canoes to have been ready for the Transportation of the Army over the Lake, were not prepared, and the other Nations of Indians, that should have come to this Campaign, sent their Excuses, pretending that the Small-pox was among them, and some other Trifles.” And, even when the Amerindians were helpful, they were only given grudging credit: “And if Almighty God will have Canada to be subdu’d without the assistance of those miserable Savages, in whom we have too much confided, we shall be glad, that there will be no Sacrifice offered up to the Devil, upon this occasion; God alone will have all the Glory.”
And so that first colonial newspaper was filled with calamity and desperation, unreliable friends and barbarous enemies. It had the potential to alarm the people of Boston, to affect their mood, and to influence relationships with friend and foe. Colonial Puritan authorities attempted to implement policies of righteousness but, to a significant degree, were more concerned with creating and maintaining a peaceful, more harmonious civilization than that which they left in Europe. And yet the impression made upon a reader of Publick Occurences is that Boston was an outpost on the edge of the civilized world, not an improved, albeit smaller, London. Colonial relationships with the Amerindians and French were delicate; rumors and misunderstandings led to bloodshed as often as a town fire swept through a few dozen Boston buildings. Metacomet had instigated a widespread Amerindian rebellion in eastern New England in the 1670s, and his head had been on a spike in Plymouth colony for fourteen years when Publick Occurences was published. The authorities were likely alarmed not by the mere lack of control but rather by the influence two men with ink-stained fingers could have on what was still as tenuous experiment to recraft civilization.
Apart from the issue of maintaining a positive sentiment among the public, Massachusetts was embroiled in political turmoil. Two years before, William had invaded England and ousted King James in what would be called the Glorious Revolution by supporters of the House of Orange, and the Puritans took the opportunity to oust the much-reviled Dominion of New England Governor Edmund Andros. The last governor of Massachusetts under the old charter, eighty-six-year-old Simon Bradstreet, led the revolt and assumed the newly recreated office of governor of Massachusetts Bay. Meanwhile, to the north of Boston (northern Massachusetts, now Maine), King William’s War was breaking out with the French and their Amerindians allies, the hallmark of which was Amerindian raids on rural towns. Political and social stability was at a premium, and the authorities had no appetite for “Memorable Occurrences of Divine Providence” that included salacious French rumors, unflattering summaries of Amerindian affairs, and painfully unsentimental anecdotes that served to remind everyone that colonial life was frightening close to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, wherein people live in “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Most brazenly, Publick Occurences was untethered from the feudal system, ignored feudal deference, and lacked mutual obligations to the oligarchy. A few men with ink stained fingers attempted to break from feudal Europe by establishing an independent voice, and thus Publick Occurences’s life was but one issue.
Perhaps more shocking were the conclusions a strict Calvinist might draw from Publick Occurences. Puritans viewed themselves, individually and as a community, as constantly striving for salvation while “the Devil is waiting” and “Hell is gaping.” They hoped and prayed that their efforts moved them in the direction of holiness but understood that the evils that enveloped them were perhaps intimations of failure and damnation. To meditate on fires and suicide was to entertain the concession that generations of striving for salvation had resulted in the same verdict that God issued to Papists and the other impure of Europe. Puritans energetically and willingly exposed themselves to extreme hardships, but they usually declined to meditate on or memorialize such hardships lest they transform from the day’s house fire to a sign from God. The Mundus Novus was still too new and there was no globus cruciger in hand, so while the experiment remained tenuous, Publick Occurences would need to wait. The founding Puritan leaders, Bradford in Plymouth Colony and Winthrop in Massachusetts Bay, kept journals of their progress and regress, vigilant for signs of God’s will. Events trifling and appalling were mined for evidence that the Mundus Novus was God’s Promised Land. Puritans had a unique combination of utter fearlessness in the human world and suffocating apprehension of God’s displeasure, and the Puritan mind could be stupefied by fear if the human world intimated God’s displeasure. The slowly evolving solution, though, was to actively remake the human world to reflect God’s will, and the Enlightenment would offer that opportunity.
And so this first independent newspaper would last only one edition. There is no evidence that it would have lasted longer regardless; it had no means of support other than the printer’s interest. But such a paper did demonstrate the features of new world media that would differ from England. At the time, independent newspapers neither existed nor were legal in England, and London’s only paper was fully funded and controlled by the government. The Puritans were, curiously, not particularly interested in propaganda. They did not seek to subvert the publication or print a government-sponsored version of one.
For the Puritans, the problem with Publick Occurrences was two-fold. First, it didn’t limit itself to the truth (e.g. rumors of French incest). Second, it didn’t support community aspirations (e.g. good relations with Amerindians and local French). Such concerns are distinct from the usual response to media witnessed throughout the world; most governments in most places require the media is actually support the government. There’s no evidence that the Puritan government even considered such a position.
These issues were limited enough that within the next few decades, newspapers would explode across New England. Boston would have multiple papers, mostly vanity-funded and agenda-driven, mostly focused on policy debates (inoculations, land reform, currency reform). While such papers inevitably peddled some scandal, they were vastly different from the newspapers that would hector London during the same period. Those papers (and related books and pamphlets) would focus far more on the salacious than the salubrious.
The cultural divide between new world and old world media can be observed in the legal issues that accompanied the rise of media. In the U.K., defamation took on a broad meaning and generally saying terrible things about someone in print was illegal, even if it was true. The British colonies generally operated under the same law, and yet we find a culture that seeks to protect what it thinks is the media’s mission: truth telling.
Eventually these two cultures that had been diverging clashed; by the 1760s, the U.K. government (but not the colonial governments) began using the colonial newspapers (particularly New York papers) as propaganda machines. Within a few decades, the landscape of American media was altered; truth still lurked deep in the DNA of American newspapers but the lesson from the Ministry that the newspapers could be used for propaganda could never be ignored. American media then grew into an existence of ontological schizophrenia: professing truth as the goal while fueled by agenda. The latter was usually dominant as it answered the pernicious question that had plagued the media from its inception: how should a newspaper be funded?
American media has never been an organ of truth; rather, it was always conflicted between its Puritan DNA and its need for revenue, between its ideals and access to power or invitations to cocktail parties, between typically mundane facts and royal French incest or race wars in Toxteth or washing someone through another saint/sinner/restoration (Richard Jewell) or virgin/whore (Spears) cycle.
The difference today isn’t that the news is fake — it’s always been that way. The difference is that if the New York Times published propaganda on the glories of Soviet reform, someone from Ukraine would tweet pictures of the corpses piling up in fallow fields.
Public policy, Propaganda, and early 18th c media
Truth as a Defense (despite the law that truth is not a defense)
The development of government agi-prop in the 1760s.
The first person to become famous for being famous via the modern media. https://email@example.com/the-first-kardashian-96362e3adeb0
NYT’s present Duranty position: https://www.nytco.com/company/prizes-awards/new-york-times-statement-about-1932-pulitzer-prize-awarded-to-walter-duranty/
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). Strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.