A Brief History of Fake News

by A. She joins Boshemia as our US political correspondent in Washington, DC. Photo by Anders Norde.

This year’s midterm elections hold the possibility of shifting the power balance in Congress, and will be a key factor in how our congressional voting districts are shaped in favor of the ruling party until 2030. Many Americans are preparing to make their election decisions by following the news closely, and even the most disengaged voter will most likely be familiar with the president’s well-known denunciation of negative press as “fake news.” Donald Trump isn’t the first president to have had an adversarial relationship with the press, however, and the United States has a long history of biased reporting and news media manipulation. Even Thomas Jefferson contended that a newspaper which published only factual and true information would have few subscribers and lamented “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

It’s hard to say if American news media has ever been truly unbiased, but in the early years of American democracy, its scope was rather limited. Prior to the advent of the telegraph in the 1840’s, news was very localized and “national” news moved a lot more slowly. At this point, congressmen had a lot more power in shaping their version of the news, and there were far fewer news outlets in Washington to schmooze and deal with.

The telegraph changed everything and allowed people across the continent to find out what Congress was up to within the same day. This was revolutionary, and also deeply dividing. This democratization of information has been cited by historians as one of the factors that hastened the approach of the American Civil War. Broadening access to news media really changed Congress’ relationship to voters. Their personal demeanors and public presentation became ever more important, and their focus steadily shifted from local to national issues.

The next tectonic shift in news reporting came with the sparkling presence of radio. Radio brought the voices of politicians into the living rooms of the American people. Now one could really experience the news as it was happening! Triumphs and scandals were being exposed in real time, and one had only to wait for the next big broadcast to be entertained.

Radio broadcasts gave way to television as the new American frontier, and suddenly the public could see the faces of their trusted correspondents, and the people they had elected into office. In the 1950’s, as more American households featured television sets, there were still just a few networks, and their main focus wasn’t only news, but the delivery of compelling programming that sold advertisement time effectively. This is about the time that focus groups and scientific study of demographic information became terribly important to corporations (think Mad Men).

Cable news was the next trend to break and completely reorganize the way media reached Americans. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, entire networks sprung up that were completely dedicated to reporting the news. No longer did one have to wait until 5 pm to understand the events of the day. The underlying issue with this 24 hour scheme was that it required several hours of compelling programming, and since people were now paying for the privileged access to this programming, it must appeal to customers. Cable news networks like Fox News and CNN would obviously increase viewership and make more money if their reporting appealed to the demographics of people who purchased their programming. If there wasn’t enough newsworthy content to report, they would have to find some. Never again would the American people be without a juicy scandal or a national tragedy!

Now, instead of just a few newspaper reporters hounding Congress in Washington, there are radio reporters, television reporters, and even internet reporters watching the every move of a member of Congress. Now, more than ever, Congress is held accountable for their actions, inside and outside of the Capitol Building. It’s not a wonder that they don’t particularly fancy this reality.

On a busy day at the Capitol, reporters stand in hallways, nervously awaiting any piece of information from a member of Congress that might drive their next story. I once watched a journalist running several paces behind an unsuspecting member of Congress, in a desperate scramble to obtain a soundbite. In his hurried efforts, he clotheslined a metal stanchion, crashed onto the marble floor, and then continued running at full speed to catch up with the person he was attempting to interview.

We’re still living in the midst of a tumultuous technological revolution, and the impact of internet news reporting on politics will remain to be seen. It’s not hard to notice, however, that the mass proliferation of information media is redefining what we regard as news. It is now more important than ever that we find ways to verify what we read and watch, and that we examine what we find worthy and relevant. The Trump administration in particular is using our veracity for new information against us, and flooding the airwaves with so much unverified and partisan information that the average American is exhausted at the mere mention of the news.

What is one to believe, when facts vary based on who is reporting them? I contend that this confusion and lack of faith in fact is the intent of the president. If we don’t know what to believe, who to trust, I’m worried we’ll believe anything.

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