Print shows illustration relating to the Great Moon Hoax with a human-bat creature, two other supernatural creatures, and a lunar landscape. Source: Library of Congress

Fit to Print?

A History of Fake News

As we approach the midterm elections, concerns about fake news – widely circulated news stories that are inaccurate, misleading, or completely made-up – continue to dominate the headlines. The topics, targets, and sources of this content continues to expand, while labelling stories as “fake news” has become a commonplace tactic to blur the lines between fiction and reality. On this episode, Nathan, Joanne and Ed will look at other times in history when Americans had to be a bit more careful about what they read.

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JOANNE: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.


ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

NATHAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that brings you the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman. If you’re new to the show, Ed, Nathan, and I are all historians. Each week, we’ll take a story from the news and look at that topic across American history. Because, of course, what’s in the news is rarely new.

ED: This is the first, in the continuing series on BackStory, looking at the history of the media.

NATHAN: We’ll begin today’s show on August 25th, 1835. On that date, the New York Sun broke an astonishing story.

ED: Life had been discovered on the moon. This is writer Matthew Goodman.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Including sheep and hairy bison. And as these articles went along, the creatures that were discovered became ever stranger and more remarkable. So it turns out that unicorns were discovered on the moon and biped beavers, beavers who walk on their hind legs and had discovered the secret of fire.

And most remarkable of all, kind of the crowning glory of the series, were these lunar man-bats, four-foot tall man-bats, who talked and flew and built temples and did art and apparently fornicated in public, although that was something the Sun didn’t go into too many details about.


JOANNE: I just want to say the word “man-bat,” I mean, all by itself. All by itself, the word “man-bat” is not something I’ve ever uttered before. And it’s a great word. I can see how it would be good press.

ED: Now you’ve probably figured out by now that this story contains what might be called alternative facts. In other words, they were made up and made to look like a credible news story. You know, fake news? And in the past few months, fake news has been, well, all over the news.

MALE SPEAKER: Three months before the 2016 presidential election, articles with fake news, from fake sources, were shared at a higher rate than real news.

MALE SPEAKER: Fake news is now on the verge of getting someone killed. That’s what almost happened this weekend in Washington at a pizza restaurant.

MALE SPEAKER: Donald Trump tweeted this, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN ABC–”

JOANNE: Today, on BackStory, we’ll look at the history of fake news. These are widely circulated news stories that are inaccurate, misleading, or completely made up. Because even though fake news is a relatively new term, the concept most definitely is not.

NATHAN: Tabloid headlines about space aliens and Elvis Presley sightings have been around for decades. And it’s in the late 19th century, newspaper editors actually encouraged reporters to spice up their stories, with fake facts, just to boost circulation. Actually, fabricated stories go back to the very beginning of the Republic.

ED: The fact that fake news has been around for so long got us wondering, do fabricated stories tend to flourish in certain moments or circumstances? Are Americans, today, more gullible than previous generations? And what the heck are man-bats?

NATHAN: But first, let’s go back to 1835 and those weird stories in the New York Sun about the man-bats, biped beavers, and the unicorns on the moon. These headlines arrived at a pivotal moment in American journalism. The Sun, for instance, had only recently burst on the scene and was part of a very new breed of newspapers.

Before the 1830s, most papers consisted of partisan editorials, dry articles about international finance and commodity price charts. These newspapers catered to the nation’s merchant class. They were poor reading. And they cost a pretty penny– six pennies in fact.

JOANNE: You said, boring, with such zest there, Nathan. I like reading those newspapers. They have all kinds of snazzy politics in them. But I will admit that the Sun, by contrast, targeted the city’s booming working class. It was a different kind of paper. Its pages were filled with local gossip, crime, sports, and, yes, stories of fantastical life on the moon, all this for a mere penny.

Other newspapers sensed a promising business model and followed suit. And before long, an entire new industry emerged. It was known, logically enough, as the penny press. And perhaps more than any story, the great moon hoax helped launch the penny press.

ED: When I interviewed him a few years back, Matthew Goodman told me this story was never meant to be taken seriously. The story, in fact, was cooked up by the Sun’s editor, Richard Adams Locke. Locke was an ardent abolitionist and all-around political radical. He was frustrated by religious astronomers, who claimed there was life on the sun, the moon, and the stars, because, why else would God have created these heavenly bodies if not to populate them?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Locke thought this was nonsense. He thought this was religion masquerading as science. And he set out to write a satire of these ideas. And he said, well, if you believe in an inhabited moon, I’ll give you an inhabited moon. And if you believe that the creatures on the moon are Christians, I will give you lunar man-bats, who build lunar temples, and garb it all in this sort of high-flown language used by the religious astronomers and, in so doing, expose it for the humbug that it is.

But what he hadn’t anticipated– and this is really the crux of the story– is that people had been so schooled in the ideas of these religious astronomers that, when the articles appeared, they simply believed them. Some people, at the time, claimed it was 9 out of 10 New Yorkers believe this.

And people, you know, swarmed around the Sun offices waiting for the next installment of the papers. And really, I guess the best indication of how popular the series was, was that, by the time the series was over, the Sun, which was this young paper– it was less than two years old– had become the most widely read newspaper in the entire world.

ED: Wow. Now, it’s interesting that this is the exact same moment and place where P.T. Barnum emerges and–

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right.

ED: –flourishes. So what is it about America and New York in the 1830s that we’re suddenly seeing this appearance, of what would then– we would now think of as sort of characteristically American gullibility, perhaps, but also fascination with the strange? And Edgar Allan Poe is up there hanging around, too, right?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right. That’s right. This was really the age of hoaxes. As you mentioned, P.T. Barnum shows up in New York that very same month, with his own hoax in tow. An elderly African-American woman named, Joice Heth, whom he claims is 161 years old, and the former nursemaid of George Washington, back in Virginia.

So yes, people loved hoaxes back then. Barnum would, very quickly, become rich and, arguably, the most famous American in the world on the back of his hoaxes.

And after people discovered that the Sun series was a hoax, they didn’t turn against the Sun as we might suspect that they did, and as many of the Sun’s rivals of the time predicted that they would They simply tipped their hats to the Sun. They said, job well done.

ED: Do it again.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Do it again. Or see if you can do it again.

ED: Right.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: We dare you to try to do it again. Because part of what was going on– and I guess this is, in some sense, an answer to your question– this was really a democratizing era. You know Andrew Jackson was in the White House at the time.

You we’re beginning to see the falling away of a lot of the venerable traditions of the old world. You know cartmen didn’t doff their hats to their employers anymore. People called each other mister rather than sir. Shaking hands instead of bowing became much more widely in use.

So this really was a democratizing time. And I think part of the appeal of hoaxes, at that time, was that people were beginning to understand their own right of judgment, their own right of determining what was true and what was not true.

And as Barnum said, when you pay your quarter and you get to the top of the stairs, you can decide what is true. And it became kind of an implicit competition between the hoaxer and the patron to try to see if he can fool them. And if they were successfully fooled, they felt not cheated. They felt entertained.

ED: I see. So I’m a big fan of democracy. And actually, I like popular culture a lot, back then and today and everything. But isn’t this a little scary, that you have democratization, and it immediately leads to lunar man-bats? I mean does this suggest a sort of lowering of standards or a weaving in of gullibility into American culture?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: I think there were good things about it. And I think there were bad things about it. Yes, you could argue that there were some diminishing of standards, perhaps. But at the same time, you began to see a far more literate public, a public that was far more able to understand what was going on, in the society around them, as a result of these newspapers.

I mean these newspapers, the penny papers like the Sun– and by the way, very quickly after the Sun, you began to see the appearance of other penny papers in cities around the country. The New Orleans Times-Picayune began at that time.

ED: Where the word “picayune” comes from, if I’m not mistaken, why we think if something as picayune–

MATTHEW GOODMAN: That’s right.

ED: –is because it was cheap, right?

MATTHEW GOODMAN: It was just one. It was the coin of the time, exactly. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, all of which continue to publish today, all got their start in the wake of the success of the Sun. So these papers were really quite good in a lot of ways.

They had very good, strong local coverage, which was something that had never been done before. And really, within about 15 or 20 years, you really see the end of the old line merchant newspapers, the six penny papers had virtually disappeared by the 1850s.

ED: Well that’s pretty amazing. And that raises a question I have. I’m sorry, I can hear that you were getting ready to say something else there. If you’d like to go ahead.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Well, I think it probably was the same point you were about to make, which is that, in a way, it’s somewhat analogous to the situation that we see today. This was a moment where a new kind of journalism, much more affordable, much faster, and kind of snappy, took over from the old-style of journalism.

And it really only took about 15 years before the old style had disappeared entirely. We might now be on the cusp of another period like that, where the old-style of journalism, meaning print journalism, is very quickly being replaced, for good or for ill, by a different kind of journalism, internet journalism. So we may be witnessing the end of that type of journalism right before our very eyes.

ED: Well it’s a very interesting counterpoint that you’ve laid out for us here, Matthew. And the book is fascinating. And I do think it’s one of these instances where the past really does kind of give us a glimmer, reflected off the moon, almost as it were, of what the future might be.

And I’m really grateful, both the book and for your time talking with us today.

MATTHEW GOODMAN: Oh, thank you. It was really fun. I appreciate it. [MUSIC PLAYING] ED: Matthew Goodman is an author of The Sun and The Moon, The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showman, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats– there you go Joanne– in Nineteenth Century New York.


NATHAN: Ed, Joanne, while the penny press was a new kind of newspaper, it didn’t invent fake news. Joanne, I think one of your founding father plays played a starring role, perhaps?

JOANNE: Yes, one of my founding father pals, Benjamin Franklin. In the period just before they were going to be negotiating the treaty with Britain to end the American Revolution, Franklin wanted to influence the negotiations.

So he actually made up a fake supplement to a real newspaper. He made it look very real. And in it, he created this story about how these Native Americans, who were allied with the British, had created a sort of gift to give to the king that included sacks of scalps of American colonists.

And it wasn’t even just like grown people scalps. It was women’s scalps and children’s scalps and infant scalps. And so Franklin, basically, just wanted the British to feel really guilty for what they and their Native American allies had done, the atrocities that they’d committed during the war.

NATHAN: Ugh. Hold on. Bags of scalps?

JOANNE: Bags of scalps– eight bags of scalps, even. You know, Franklin thought big. And he was hoping, for that very reason– you just did what I’m sure he wanted the British to do, which was go, ooh, my gosh, really? That happened in America? And maybe the peace negotiations would be more favorable towards America.

ED: Did that work?

JOANNE: Well, who knows.

ED: We are a separate nation, so I guess it worked.

JOANNE: It’s true. Well, and what did work, though, was that that story got reprinted. It got printed in London newspapers. It got printed throughout the colonies or, actually, now states. So I mean, if his point was partly to influence public opinion, I suppose you could say, yeah, he did. Because that story spread all over the place.

ED: That could even be the definition of fake news. People believe it enough to spread it around.

NATHAN: Yeah. I guess you could say that there are many different stripes of fake news, right? I mean one didn’t have to necessarily want to deceive someone for it to have a kind of fake news effect. Take for example these headlines, from the late 18th century. Historian Bruce Dain reads us a sampling.

BRUCE DAIN: Let me find a really good one. Account of a person born a negro or a very dark mulatto, who, afterwards, became white. Another instance of a Negro turning white. Let’s see, another Ethiopian turning to a white man.

NATHAN: OK, what in the world are they talking about?

BRUCE DAIN: They’re talking about this craze, right after the Revolution, in the 1780s and especially the 1790s, for so-called white Negroes.

ED: Things were weird back then in the revolution, Joanne.

JOANNE: Well, they were. But I mean I spend my time back there, I still want to hear what the heck he’s talking about.

NATHAN: Now, I asked Dain why Americans, back then, would snap up stories about African-Americans turning white.

BRUCE DAIN: These were seen as foretelling that the race problem in America would go away of its own accord. People are worried about the slavery issue. Let’s say there was emancipation. Well, you have a group of people, who are– if you’re white, you have a group of people who look different than you.

And that difference is a mark of having been a slave. And the fear– and this is most famously said by Thomas Jefferson in his only published book– the end result of emancipation in America, without black people having to leave, because they look different and remember what the difference has meant, will be race war.

So this is a big preoccupation. If all black people will just whiten up, this will all just take care of itself.

NATHAN: OK, they couldn’t have possibly had anybody who they could document as having turned white at this time.

BRUCE DAIN: Actually, there was. There was a man, named Henry Moss, who was probably from Maryland, who had probably been born a slave. And at some point, when he was a child, he reported that his skin started turning white in big blotches. And by the time he became an adult, his hair and his face were almost completely white, even though he had very negroid features, and he had white blotches across his body.

NATHAN: Negroid being the term of the day?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes. And he knew that people were interested in this and were talking about these issues. And he figured he could make a buck out of it. He got himself to Philadelphia and got in contact with Charles Caldwell, who was a doctor, who was well-known, and who was the protege of the founding father Benjamin Rush, who was a very famous physician.

And they set him up in an inn outside of Philadelphia. And a lot of the founders and well-known people came out and looked at him. And they paid a nickel, to examine him with his clothes on, and a quarter to examine him naked.

NATHAN: So you’re actually telling me that there is not only one or two or several headlines about black people turning white, but that there is an entrepreneurial person, possibly a slave, who has a skin condition– presumably what we would call today as vitiligo, which causes one to lose their melanin– he’s actually using this opportunity to travel to Philadelphia and make a buck off of this?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes, make such a buck that he seems to have been able to purchase his own freedom, that of his wife, and even buy a small farm in Virginia.

NATHAN: Right next to Thomas Jefferson, presumably, right?

BRUCE DAIN: Actually, I don’t think it was that far from Charlottesville. I think was a bit north.

NATHAN: So we have to imagine that Henry Moss and any number of observers of the time would have known that the mass of black people were not going to miraculously become white. And yet this was being printed. It was being sold. I mean is this a variation of what we might call fake news?

BRUCE DAIN: I’d call it a variation of fantasy news, maybe desperate fantasy news. And I think most Americans probably do know that– look, certainly within 10 or 20 years, by 1820, when you don’t have 200,000 Henry Moss’ running around, the writing is on the wall.

NATHAN: Right. Right, right, right, absolutely. And yet, I mean again, this is still a moment where there is great anxiety about the presence of not necessarily white Negroes but certainly free Negroes, right? I mean this is something where the American readership, who might be picking up a newspaper, you know, The Republic or maybe even the penny press of the antebellum period, where they would be very concerned about news pertaining to people of African descent. Is that fair to say?

BRUCE DAIN: Yes. And it’s free people of African descent. I mean I think, really, if you want to have one theme for the race problem– if you want to call it that– in American history, it’s a problem of emancipation, freedom, and citizenship, what happens after slavery.

So the presence of these growing free black communities– and the one in Philadelphia is big and getting bigger. And they’re pretty thriving by the 1820s. These free black communities, those scare people. People are worried about what will happen after, about black assertion, black citizenship. And my god, sex between black men and white women, things like that.

NATHAN: So if you think about the process of writing a story about Henry Moss, is it fair to say that the authors are intending to kind of fool or deceive their readership? That there’s something about it that might be considered a bit dishonest in the way we would think about fake news today?

BRUCE DAIN: No. I think we can psychoanalyze them as kidding themselves. But did the people who wrote about him as maybe an instance of what could happen in the future believe it? Yeah, I think that they did.

NATHAN: Right. I mean this is actually, perhaps, a deeper question, where the intentionality might not matter so much as the social impact.

BRUCE DAIN: That’s exactly how historians have seen it. They’ve looked at what kind of a psyche, what kind of a view, an attitude towards race does this reveal? Why were people interested in it? I think that’s probably the more interesting way to look at it. That’s why I mean, it’s fantasy news. It’s taking a real instance and spinning a lot of wish fulfillment out of it, which, really, even then, the people involved should have known better.

NATHAN: I think it’s pretty safe to say that, when people look back 25 or 50 years from now, and they’re analyzing the 2016 presidential campaign, they might be less concerned with individual bloggers and their intentions and more interested in the ways in which the term “fake news” has become part of more general parlance, conversation, the social impact of the category.

I mean is there anything about the contemporary moment that you’re able to understand a bit more sharply having studied, what you call, fantasy news? Or what kinds of parallels do you see between our current moment and what you’re describing from the world of Henry Moss?

BRUCE DAIN: I think back then, Henry Moss, not many people said he did not exist. It’s not like, were there were 11,000 Muslims cheering in Jersey City? Well, is that a fact or not? We can say it’s a fake fact, therefore, fake news. Henry Moss existed. Most of these statements, people thought there was some reality to them. It’s what the facts meant that everybody fought like crazy about.

NATHAN: Well, that really is my question. I mean is there any sense that you have about what the social meaning of a Henry Moss story might have held?

BRUCE DAIN: What’s the social meaning? I think the social meaning is it shows the intense pressure to imagine America as this great environment, combined with this notion that equality is really only possible, in a nasty and difficult and corrupt world, if people feel and seem more or less the same, that they have enough in common, in a familial and lineal kind of way.

We’re all from the same place. We all think more or less the same things, believe the same things. We all live more or less the same way. There is this assumption, you have to have that. You have to have that type of viable country that will last.

NATHAN: Right. Thomas Jefferson actually, famously wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever,” unquote. And thinking about something as heavy as that, one might find a great deal of relief in reading what seems to be a pretty harmless story about a black man turning white.

BRUCE DAIN: Yeah. And they’re aware of the hypocrisy. You know Johnson, the British writer, said, before the revolution and during it, why do the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?

People understand that. Jefferson, himself, even thinks, well, look, the reason why there’ll be this race war, and God will be on black side, is we have done far worse to African-Americans than the British did to us. British mistreatment and metaphorical slavery created American patriotism and the revolution.

What did real slavery, based on a visible difference, do in black people’s minds? We’ve created an enemy nation in our midst. And they implacably wish to destroy us.

And of course, the really hilarious thing is, if you read anybody, even the most radical 19th century black writers, some of whom do call for a slave rebellion, they all offer the promise, you treat us equally, and it’ll all be fine. So that’s really a white– this revenge thing is a white fantasy. And that’s the fantasy news.

If I were to say the fake news of the 19th century, the 18th century, regarding these issues, is this intense fear of this incredible and horrible apocalyptic conflict if black people are given any more freedom or power or political rights. And that’s the fake news. Because if you actually look, what anybody, virtually anyone who’s African-American actually does, when they’re given any of that, it doesn’t confirm that fantasy at all.

NATHAN: Right. Bruce Dain is a professor of History at the University of Utah and author of The Hideous Monster of the Mind, American Race Theory in the Early Republic. Thanks again, Bruce.

BRUCE DAIN: You’re very welcome.


ED: That was a really interesting interview, Nathan. And it reminds us there’s been no shortage of bad information and just fabrications and lies. But we seem to think that we’ve discovered something new in this fake news.

JOANNE: I mean I think it’s a combination of something really old and something really new. You can go all the way back to the dawning of the Republic and beyond and say, yeah, of course, people have made up fake stories to have an impact, to have a political impact or a social impact or some other kind of an impact. So they’re deliberately planting fake news stories.

But what’s interesting about the early newspapers, like from, I don’t know, the 1780s, early 19th century, you didn’t really assume, when you were reading those newspapers, that you necessarily were getting objective facts. I mean you could argue that early American newspaper readers were, in a sense, savvier, because they didn’t necessarily assume that everything that they were reading was true.

They kind of knew. I mean it’s really– when you look at the correspondence of national politicians in the first decade of the government, you’ll see that they mostly get news– if they’re back home writing to people in Philadelphia, which is the capital– they’re relying on each other, really, for news of what’s going on in national politics.

And when the government goes out of session for a couple of months, these politicians say constantly to each other, well, I read in the paper that so-and-so said this and such. Does that have any bearing on reality? And they really rely on their person-to-person contact to know if there’s any truth at all to what’s going on in the newspaper.

NATHAN: This is incredible, because it actually suggests that what we’re seeing is the 19th century response to a 20th century condition. In other words, we believed, coming as subjects out of the 20th century, in objective, standard, real news.

ED: Right.

NATHAN: And instead now, we’re being asked to develop a certain kind of suspicion. We’re being broken up into these different kind of readerships that pretty much presume that anything that we read that isn’t pre-selected, along our already clear ideological lines, must itself be false or fake.

So it’s almost like we have a 19th century kind of mindset that we’re developing in response to the certainty we used to enjoy in the 20th century about our news sources.

JOANNE: Or are we already retreating back to the 18th century, where we can basically say, eh, why do we believe in any of this anyway?

NATHAN: Right. So Joanne, clearly from Professor Bruce Dain’s interview, we know that fake news or fantasy news precedes the Republic. But are their examples where it actually helped in the founding of the Republic?

JOANNE: Oh, helped? I can think of a lot of examples where it shaped the Republic. I mean I can think of moments where there was fake news that was directly incorporated into, for example– surprise, surprise– political campaigns.

So in the presidential election of 1800– and again, the fact that this worked as fake news partly relies on the fact that it was hard to spread information. And because of that, it was hard to contradict rumors once they got started.

So the Federalists definitely did not want Thomas Jefferson to be president. And he was running in that election. There was some Federalist newspapers that began to spread the story, in the middle of the election, that Jefferson died, which I think is just ingenious, right?

ED: That can really slow down a campaign, couldn’t it?

JOANNE: It does. I does.

NATHAN: It seems so easy to refute.

JOANNE: Well, right, but it isn’t. So how do you refute that? And there’s a little flurry of stories in the newspaper saying, tragic occurrence, horrible occurrence. How can this be that Thomas Jefferson has died? And eventually, there’s enough chatter in the newspaper that that story goes away. But it makes a really good point that’s there today. How do you contradict fake news?

ED: Well, during the Civil War, as you can imagine, there was all kinds of rumor and news that would be printed, that would prove to be wrong later. And I’ve seen charges by the Democrats, back then, that the Republicans were always spinning things, so it looked like they were winning, in order to maintain support behind it.

So I think that’s pretty close to what we’re talking about today, in the sense that it’s sort of state sponsored or party sponsored, and then disseminated through a network of like-minded or even subservient media. So that’s the one example that comes to mind for me.

JOANNE: But I do think, in the 19th century, you actually really begin to get journalists and newspapers claiming– they’re doing, for example, interviews with congressmen. So they’re not just reporting, but they’re actually quoting. And then they could say, oh, well, he said this. Look, there’s some authenticity to that.

So you’re getting the rise of objectivity, as you’re suggesting, in the 19th century. Maybe, just as you’re saying, are we sort of backing away from the ability to know what it is? That’s kind of scary, actually.

ED: Well, you folks aren’t old enough to remember how awesome it was just to have Walter Cronkite just tell you the truth every night. I think it may be that Vietnam kind of blew that up.

There’s the contrast between live film footage, from the front, which would have been, in earlier times, sort of testimony to its authenticity. And yet, it turned out we were being lied to by the government. And then with Watergate, it’s just hard to know if we’ve actually ever recovered that faith that we had back in the 12 days or whenever it was that we had full confidence in the media.

So what do you think, Nathan? You’re a historian of the 20th century. Does that seem plausible?

NATHAN: Absolutely. I mean, obviously, there are a host of kind of alternative voices that are existing in the media, even during the Cronkite era. Obviously, the black presses are trying to highlight certain things about racial violence in the North that mainstream media won’t cover and so on.

But I will say that it’s pretty striking when you think about the kind of money that went into running the major news organizations, and the fact that that money is now drying up in terms of print media in particular.

So the number of newspapers in the country has declined by almost 100 over the last 10-plus years, right? That’s leading to this strange proliferation of sources that are, at best, questionable in terms of their veracity.

ED: Wow. You’re freaking me out. I mean what I’m hear you saying is that we have all the means of dissemination but none of the content.


ED: So that’s what we’re seeing? Oh god.

NATHAN: I think that’s right. I think that’s right.

ED: Say something to cheer me up.

NATHAN: Well, history moves in cycles. No, I’m just kidding.

JOANNE: Good try, Nathan. Really good try.

NATHAN: But I do think that there is this, which is that people, at some level, did want and hoped for something a little bit more certain. The birth of what we took to be objective news, in the late 19th and early 20th century, did come from a certain desire of people to have direct quotations, to have images, to have something a little more durable on which to base their information and their choices.

And so my sense, at least, is that you’ll probably continue to have one or two major news outlets that are going to be reliable. I don’t think the New York Times is going to shutter its doors any time soon. But I do think that what we have to be careful about is the way in which news, across the board, has been de-legitimized.

I think the fake news charge does bring us to a point that is like an earlier period, where you almost presume that no source is valid. And I think we’re going to be really worse off, for whatever we decide to do going forward, if we don’t think we can trust any news sources that are available.

JOANNE: Right. And I totally agree with that. And that also goes back to the beginning of the Republic, when James Madison essentially considered the press a fourth branch of government. Because how else do you hold government accountable–

NATHAN: The fourth estate, absolutely.

JOANNE: –but with the press? Right. And so if we’re de-legitimizing the press, what is the tool of accountability? Removing that at a moment when it would be really, really good to have that in place.

ED: That’s going to do it for today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us at Or send us an email at BackStory at Virginia dot edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at BackStory Radio. And feel free to review the new show in the iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

NATHAN: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director. Diana Williams is our digital editor. And Joey Thompson is our researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Greg, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach.

Our theme song was written by Nick Thorburn. Other music in the episode came from Podington Bear and Ketsa. Special thanks to the Johns Hopkins University Radio Studios.

JOANNE: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Windom for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.