Segment from Fit to Print?

Fakin' It

Hosts Nathan Connolly, Joanne Freeman and Ed Ayers talk about moments throughout American history when fake or invented news had an impact, including headlines from the Presidential election of 1800 that candidate Thomas Jefferson had died.

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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.