Orson Welles (center) meeting with reporters after the <i>War of the Worlds</i> radio broadcast. November, 1938. CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Orson_Welles_1938_War_of_the_Worlds.jpg">The Express (Public Domain)</a>
Orson Welles (center) meeting with reporters after the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. November, 1938. CREDIT: The Express (Public Domain)

The History of Fake News, with Andie Tucher

Sep 4, 2018

Historian Andie Tucher takes us through 400 years of fake news in America, starting with a fake story published in 1690. But today, she says, given the the speed, anonymity, and reach of the Internet it's a lot easier to get away with faking news in dangerous ways--and harder to push back, especially given the president's attitude that the press is the enemy of the people.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Professor Andie Tucher. Andie is a professor and historian. She teaches at the Columbia Journalism School here in New York City.

Andie, thanks so much for coming today.

ANDIE TUCHER: It's a pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: You're an expert on the history of fake news. Fake news is a big topic in American politics and probably politics all around the world. You were recently on the Hidden Brain podcast talking about your new research. My understanding is that you're working on a new book about the history of fake news. Do you have a tentative title for that?

ANDIE TUCHER: The working title is Misinformed.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have an expected publication date?

ANDIE TUCHER: Hoping to make it before the 2020 election.

DEVIN STEWART: Perfect. Well, we look forward to seeing the book Misinformed.

This is also part of our ongoing podcast series on Information Warfare, which is examining propaganda, misinformation, being misinformed, and the history of fake news as well, so it's a real pleasure to talk with you today.

Looking at the theme of history of fake news in America, you have identified a very early instance of fake news. I think it was 1690, the very first episode of a fake news story. Can you tell us about that?

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes. This was the first newspaper ever published in the North American colonies. It was called Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick in Boston in 1690. An American-produced newspaper was a new thing, and here comes a guy called Ben Harris from England, and he says, "I'm going to publish a newspaper, and I'm going to tell the truth, and I'm going to correct things if I get it wrong, and I'm going to hold people to account." It all sounds very modern and ethical. That first issue had a fake news story about the king of France, who was in trouble because he was sleeping with his daughter-in-law.

DEVIN STEWART: His daughter-in-law?

ANDIE TUCHER: His daughter-in-law. We know this was fake news because he didn't have a daughter-in-law at the time. But also because we think—or I think—that the editor of this newspaper wanted to be very critical of an absolute monarch who was also a Catholic because the editor in Boston and much of Boston was very Protestant, and he thought this would be a good way of—

DEVIN STEWART: Playing to the Catholic readership.

ANDIE TUCHER: Or playing against the Catholic readership by criticizing a king who was a Catholic and who was persecuting Protestants. The story sounded true because Louis XIV had been a real rake. He was calming down, he was behaving much better under the influence of his second wife.

It was a way for the editor, who probably wasn't sure whether it was true or not, but he thought: This is a good one. I'll go with it.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you know where the story came from originally? Where did he find this story, or did he just make it up?

ANDIE TUCHER: It's hard to know, but a lot of European newspapers at that point, they traded. They sent them around. He had been an editor in London. He had been an editor in Amsterdam. He knew a lot of people, so he probably got sent newspapers from around Europe, and he just picked that item out and said, "Yeah, this one sounds good."

DEVIN STEWART: What were the consequences for that newspaper?

ANDIE TUCHER: Pretty severe. He was shut down right away. The newspaper was confiscated. All the issues were destroyed. It was partly because he was saying rude things but also because he was doing it without permission from the authorities, which was required at the time.

DEVIN STEWART: Who shut him down exactly? Was this state government or city government?

ANDIE TUCHER: The colonial government, the governing council at the time, the council members just confiscated everything. And they had that right because according to British law—and Britain was ruling the colonies at the time—they had to get permission, and he hadn't done it.

DEVIN STEWART: How did you actually find this story, by the way? You've been looking at fake news for 400 years in the United States. What's your method? How do you go about finding these episodes?

ANDIE TUCHER: I didn't realize it, but I've been studying fake news for 30 years in various forms. What I've always been interested in is the evolution of truth-telling conventions. Of course, if you're looking at truth-telling conventions, the flip side of that is always fakes and falsities and frauds and deceptions.

DEVIN STEWART: An aspect of the storytelling method has always included falsehoods.

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes, always.

DEVIN STEWART: Has there ever been a period in American history where we've just had a very honest, clean journalism sector?

ANDIE TUCHER: Well, the only time I know of for sure was the 14 years after Publick Occurrences was shut down, because at that point there were no newspapers published in America.

DEVIN STEWART: That was an anomaly?


DEVIN STEWART: You're saying that if there are journalists, then there will be fabrications. If there are no journalists, then there won't be fabrications.

ANDIE TUCHER: If there are no journalists, there won't be fabrications. We can count on that, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: But that's not to say something bad about journalists.

ANDIE TUCHER: No. In fact, journalism had a very different purpose for the first—up until about the beginning of the 20th century journalism was very different. The idea of a journalist—people who lived in little towns all over America didn't have a lot of access to printed material. They had a weekly newspaper and not a lot else.

The weekly newspaper fulfilled all sorts of roles. It had short stories, it had serialized novels, it had poetry, it had tall tales, it had hoaxes that everybody knew were hoaxes, but it was all a way to fit a whole bookstore's worth of stuff into four pages that came out once a week. Some of it was playful. A lot of historians point to the "Great Moon Hoax" of 1835 in [The Sun (New York City)], which was a brand-new kind of newspaper, a penny newspaper, which was directed toward a wide middle-class/working-class audience for the first time. It published one day a story saying that somebody at the Cape of Good Hope had this huge telescope, and he could see the moon, and he could see men with wings that looked like bats. He could see blue goats. He could see people who rolled, and it was all really great.

A lot of historians look at this and say: "This is terrible. He's fooling everybody." I don't think that was the point. I think people knew that it was a game and that they were being permitted, invited, to decide for themselves whether or not it was true. Since the expectation was not that everything in a newspaper was going to be true, I don't think they were really upset or horrified if they were able to figure out for themselves, Nah, this is not true.

DEVIN STEWART: Is this the story where the reveal came at the very end of the story, where it said something like—maybe I'm confusing it with a different story—where at the very end of the story it says, "Actually, this is just a made-up story," but nobody read all the way to the bottom?

ANDIE TUCHER: That one was the wild animal hoax. That one was a little different. That was seen as kind of ugly.

DEVIN STEWART: Where was that?

ANDIE TUCHER: That was the New York Herald.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the date?


DEVIN STEWART: And took place where?

ANDIE TUCHER: In New York City. The Herald was always seen as a newspaper that pushed the boundaries. It was very sensational, it was very commercial, it loved teasing its readers. It had a huge story about how wild animals broke out of their cages in the Central Park Zoo. The rhinoceros, whose name was Pete, had gotten out, and he was angry, and he was knocking everything down. So the panthers were out, the lions were out, the elephants were out. A long, detailed thing about the cougars gnawing horribly on somebody's head, and the tiger got on the ferryboat and killed everybody because they couldn't get off. It was really lurid.

DEVIN STEWART: These animals sound like they have a lot of resources. They're very creative.

ANDIE TUCHER: Exactly. At the end of the piece, then the writer said: "Well, this didn't really happen, but we just wanted you to think about whether the city has reinforced the zoo fences and gates well enough. This might happen." That was seen as over the top because people were terrified, and nobody read the whole thing down to the end, and the Herald had a reputation of being kind of nasty all along. So this didn't go over well because people were fooled, and they didn't like that.

The ones that were hoaxes that invited them to participate were a whole different kind of category.

DEVIN STEWART: What were the consequences for the Herald?

ANDIE TUCHER: Not a lot, simply because people who already read the Herald liked that it was a bad boy, but many people were upset. There were letters to the editor in all the other newspapers complaining. The Herald didn't really acknowledge it. It said: "Well, you know, we didn't really think this was going to upset people. It was just a joke." They ended up looking bad.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you explore at all the War of the Worlds controversy?

ANDIE TUCHER: Oh, the radio program, yes. That's another one that there's a little bit of fake news about how it's talked about.

DEVIN STEWART: Reported, right, exactly. The common belief is that there was mass hysteria, but the idea that there was mass hysteria is itself hysterical. Was it overblown?


DEVIN STEWART: Tell us that story. That's fascinating.

ANDIE TUCHER: This was Orson Welles, who was sort of a child prodigy who was in his early 20s. He did a program on CBS Radio in his regular time slot that did radio dramas of various kinds. He introduced it at the top as a "radio drama." But it then went into a really realistic account that played on expectations of how radio news worked because it had the male announcer with the resonant voice, and it had people coming who were experts with expert titles, and they unfolded the story of Martians in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. There were interviews with people who said they could see the monster rising out of a capsule.

DEVIN STEWART: What year was this again?


DEVIN STEWART: Wow. Was it broadcast nationally or just in certain states?

ANDIE TUCHER: It was broadcast nationally over the CBS franchise, but there was a very popular program on NBC opposite it, so not a lot of people actually heard it as it unfolded. But it sounded realistic.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounded real.


DEVIN STEWART: So the fake news story was that there was some type of mass panic.


DEVIN STEWART: I don't think most Americans realize that the real fake news story of this story is that there was the panic itself.


DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

ANDIE TUCHER: There were two factors there. One was newspapers reported that there was a panic. There was a huge story in The New York Times with stories about college students fainting as they tried to get to telephones to call home, and the woman who was found by her husband ready to take poison saying, "I'd rather die this way than that way," a whole series of stuff.

Seems to me that the newspapers, they were working fast. They didn't have a lot of connections around the country that were fast at that time, but newspapers also were in a little bit of a battle with radio, which they feared was taking their readers away, their audience away. I think a chance to make radio listeners look stupid was irresistible to newspapers, and they hyped it a little bit.

But it was picked up by a Princeton professor named Hadley Cantril. He was already worried about radio because he had studied in Germany in the early 1930s, and he saw the rise of the Nazis, and he wanted to find out that radio could have a terrible effect, that radio propaganda was something to worry about. He did a survey that tweaked his numbers. He chose people who he knew had been frightened.

There were scholarly fakes. There was the newspaper fake part of it, but also it was a scary time because people had just listened to the reporting on whether Hitler's Germany was going to be invading Czechoslovakia to take back the Sudetenland. So there was this resonance with a scary story about an invasion by aliens.

DEVIN STEWART: When you think back at the various eras of journalism—it sounds like you've identified different periods—how do you explain the character of those periods? Is it a different sense of what truth is? Another thing you've talked about is the advent of different technologies, or maybe it's rivalry between mediums like you just talked about. First of all, what are those different eras, and how were they shaped?

ANDIE TUCHER: I think everything you've suggested is part of the story. In the first hundred years or so of newspapers, like the 18th century, newspapers were completely a part of the political system. They were run by politicians, they were owned by politicians, actually until about the beginning of the 19th century. They were part of the political process, and no one expected a newspaper to be objective. That was not a value on the table. They expected newspapers to talk about politics.

DEVIN STEWART: To have an agenda.

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes, to be partisan.

Nineteenth century, that's when some newspapers like the penny press in the big cities—New York, Philadelphia, Boston—started to do a more commercialized press that survived based on subscriptions and advertising, not on political ties. But that was also the time when newspapers were just filled with everything, when they were a complete chaotic mess of lovely stuff that people liked to read.

The expectation was, yes, there was going to be important stuff in them. It was going to serve democracy. That was always a serious aspect of newspapers.

DEVIN STEWART: There is some burden on the reader to make a judgment.


DEVIN STEWART: That was true for the first era and the second era.

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes. In the third era things start to change around the beginning of the 20th century for lots of reasons. This is the time of the Progressive movement in politics, and there's a sense that reform is needed and that we need newspapers to—

DEVIN STEWART: Some good reform, some bad reform.


DEVIN STEWART: The Progressives weren't all ethical.

ANDIE TUCHER: They weren't all ethical, no, and they made some reforms that were not great ideas. But they did have idealistic visions of a society where poverty and injustice could be eradicated, and where newspapers really had an important role to play. They were particularly upset by the yellow press, the sensational press, and the terrible over-hyping of the Spanish-American War.

So there was a movement afoot for clean government and reform that newspapers could help serve. There was a movement afoot that was valuing the scientific method and realism if you look at literature, art, and photography.

DEVIN STEWART: This coincides with temperance?

ANDIE TUCHER: That's part of it, too, yes. That's part of the reform movement.

DEVIN STEWART: Clean living and so forth.

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes. But also scientific observation. You could solve everything with science. And with science you observed. You sat back and observed. You didn't meddle with it. You didn't impose your values on it, the idea that science could solve everything. So maybe that's a new method you can use in journalism, too, to sit back and observe, and not to impose your political values. That's the beginning of the sense that objectivity was a useful value.

Rivalries among newspapers—The New York Times is in the forefront of this new kind of journalism in part because it needs to do something.

DEVIN STEWART: When was this?

ANDIE TUCHER: This was 1896. Adolph Ochs buys The New York Times, and he needs to do something because William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer are mopping up the city with their mass-circulation newspapers, and he knows he can't compete that way. So he produces a "decent" newspaper, a truthful newspaper, a newspaper that's going to be different. "It will not soil the breakfast cloth" was one of its mottoes.


ANDIE TUCHER: Not only is it not going to get ink on your English muffins, but the suggestion there is that it's going to be honorable and respectable and that you could have it at the breakfast table with your wife in a negligee, and it would be okay.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's metaphorical and visceral at the same time. That's wild.


DEVIN STEWART: Were there eras after that period, between then and now?

ANDIE TUCHER: Wartime always changes things in society as a whole. In World War I there was a real effort—it was called "voluntary self-censorship," but the Creel Committee, the Committee on Public Information, was exerting enormous pressure on journalists and on the public at large to support the war effort. So there's a lot of stuff going on there that feels like propaganda and really was propaganda. [Editor's note: For more on the Committee on Public Information, check out this podcast with World War I Living Legacy Fellow Charlies Sorrie.]

DEVIN STEWART: But it sounds like the accusations of today, that the press is just full of propaganda and agendas and so forth. Was there ever a period where there was no ax to grind? Was there ever a time when the press was truly reporting scientifically, so to speak?

ANDIE TUCHER: Another thing to think about is that the landscape of American journalism is vast, and things coexist like a respectable mainstream city urban newspaper and crazy sensational reporting in the same city. It's always very various, and there is always an effort on either end of the spectrum to distinguish themselves, to do different kinds of reporting.

DEVIN STEWART: Competition.

ANDIE TUCHER: Competition, yes.

The 1960s and 1970s is an interesting time.

DEVIN STEWART: Investigative.

ANDIE TUCHER: Yes, exactly. A lot of sense that the government was not telling the truth, particularly about Vietnam.

DEVIN STEWART: The government was the opposition party back then.

ANDIE TUCHER: Exactly. The idea then that it was important for newspapers to be an adversary to the government, not to be on the government's side. World War II, there was a lot of pressure for the press to be on the government's side because the stakes were so huge. That's understandable. You don't want to report things that give the very powerful and frightening enemy power. That is understandable.

But there is a backlash against that. So much of what happens in journalism is backlashes against the previous thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh, sure. That's true of almost everything, philosophy, martial arts, and cuisine.

ANDIE TUCHER: Martial arts for sure.

DEVIN STEWART: Religion, that's another one.

How is the press doing today? You teach at the School of Journalism at Columbia University. Are they doing a good job? What's your assessment?

ANDIE TUCHER: It's really hard. It's a really hard job. It's incredibly difficult when you have the president of the United States saying that the press is the enemy of the people in very vocal, explicit terms. That's something that's kind of new, I think.

The technological capacities of modern-day journalism and quasi-journalism and parajournalism, and all of this stuff that operates as if it might be journalism but doesn't follow journalistic rules. The vast complexities of trying to figure out what is truthful, what is not, what you can trust, how was it produced, how did those journalists work, did those journalists apply standards or not. All of that is really hard and very fast-moving, which is another new thing.

There have been efforts before from foreign governments to meddle. In 1915 the German government bought a New York newspaper called The New York Evening Mail and tried to use it as a propaganda organ quietly. It didn't tell anybody it had bought this; it was through shell companies.

DEVIN STEWART: So there were other episodes of foreign governments using stories and fake news to influence American life, American politics?

ANDIE TUCHER: To try, yes. It didn't work that well.

DEVIN STEWART: How far back does that go?

ANDIE TUCHER: I don't know of specific examples before 1915 because the press was so fragmented before that, but I'm sure that there were episodes.

There were episodes on the other side. Benjamin Franklin, when he was working as the ambassador to France, he was publishing a newspaper that told terrible stories about British atrocities against American Indians. He presented that as—it was a piece of fake news. So there has always been this inclination to use the press.

DEVIN STEWART: Amazing. Benjamin Franklin was like the first Breitbart.

ANDIE TUCHER: In some ways.

DEVIN STEWART: Were there any episodes before Benjamin Franklin that come to mind, or is that one of the first?

ANDIE TUCHER: During the American Revolution there was almost a samizdat press. A committee of correspondents would circulate news among other newspaper editors from their home in Boston that talked about atrocities that the British were committing against loyal Americans. Whether they were true or not—

DEVIN STEWART: I guess there is somewhat of a criticism of looking at this topic in the United States from people abroad. You've probably come across this where non-Americans will respond to these types of inquiries—the influence of foreigners into American politics—by saying something to the effect of, "America invented this and perfected spreading propaganda in the world." What do you make of that assertion?

ANDIE TUCHER: America has certainly had the most complicated press for all sorts of reasons. It had a very active local press that ordinary people were happy and willing to read in the 19th century. Most of Europe didn't. Most of Europe had newspapers published in the big cities for generally elite readers, but you would not go off in the countryside of France and find every town with newspapers on both political sides as you would in America.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that because of our feelings about free speech?

ANDIE TUCHER: Part of it is feelings about free speech. Part of it is simply the settlement of the United States. As you push farther west and you set up more and more little towns, the thing that makes you feel like you're a town with an identity is to have a newspaper.


ANDIE TUCHER: Some of it is simply that there has been this enormously complicated media landscape, much bigger than most other places.

A feeling for the freedom of speech is really important. Most European nations, their presses were rooted in an era before that was seen as an important value, so they didn't have the same kind of tradition. It's not in the written constitutions of many European nations.

Also, the U.S. press has always been a lot more commercial.

DEVIN STEWART: Sure. The free market. Free speech and the free market.

ANDIE TUCHER: Free speech and the free market.

DEVIN STEWART: That combination.

ANDIE TUCHER: Which in some ways has been great, and in some ways—

European papers are more likely to be controlled by a government or by the church or by elites.

DEVIN STEWART: Political party.

ANDIE TUCHER: Political parties, yes. So they're not as commercially based, and they don't reward the kind of entrepreneurship and experimentation and extravagance.

DEVIN STEWART: As a result, for example, I'm thinking of the use of, I think it was some Looney Tunes characters, that was used as a propagandist to spread feelings about patriotism during I think it was World War II.

The speculation is that the United States has been doing this kind of thing forever. First of all, is that true, and is America particularly good at it in the world, whether it's spreading democracy or that America is number one, or Nazis are bad, or whatever the message is?

ANDIE TUCHER: America has always felt that it has an important message to distribute, and often it is.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's a feeling of self-importance?

ANDIE TUCHER: Some of it, yes. A valid feeling of self-importance, for instance, during World War II, when the battle was against totalitarians and fascist forces. There was a very active U.S. propaganda arm sending messages. There would be newspapers dropped over German troops that were supposed to be French Resistance newspapers and were not, sort of thing.


ANDIE TUCHER: There's always been a really important effort, which has been undergirded by a feeling that is sometimes really arrogant and sometimes really imperialist but I think is rooted in a sense that American values that embody democracy, even if we don't live up to it, these are important values to share and to disseminate, especially against totalitarian forces.

So, yes, the United States has gotten a lot more practice.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we go, where did the term "fake news" even come from in the first place? Did you find out who coined that?

ANDIE TUCHER: It was first applied to news in the 1880s and 1890s, but it was seen as something that was not really terrible. This was the era of the sensational press, the mass press, the yellow press, and a lot of journalists were saying, writing in professional journals, in their memoirs, and to each other faking is fun because people don't want dry arithmetic textbooks. They want something that's a little bit interesting, a little bit nice. It doesn't hurt anybody. If you say that the young enchantress was blonde instead of brunette, people will like that. It doesn't hurt anybody. We're giving people what they want.

But, of course, it's also license to be sloppy, to be careless, and to be a little bit propagandistic themselves. Part of the backlash of the rise of the objective press was partly in backlash to this jolly sense of faking is a cool thing to do.

DEVIN STEWART: Looseness with the truth.


DEVIN STEWART: Wow. I guess we can conclude with what should we do about this. It's always like that. The point of action. Maybe you could think about what you tell your students at Columbia.

You give me the impression after speaking with you today that there have always been problems with finding the truth, the press has pretty much never been completely trustworthy, and that readers have used their judgment throughout history to find out what is ultimately most believable or true. Why the panic now? Is it too simplistic just to say that people should be responsible for doing more research and being better informed by looking at more sources? What do you tell people?

ANDIE TUCHER: There are a lot of people who say that media literacy, that teaching people how to be discriminating, is a great idea.

DEVIN STEWART: Have we lost that?

ANDIE TUCHER: It has become harder under the pressure of the enormous media landscape out there. It's a lot harder because it's much less visible. You go on a website, and it's often hard, unless you really read around and look at the fine print and look behind the URLs and all of that, it can be hard to know where it came from. To know how to judge that is difficult. People live their lives, and people are not going to spend an hour trying to decide whether they should trust this website or not. It's easy, it comes across, and maybe it's sent to them by a friend. It's asking a lot, although it's something that should be part of everybody's everyday experience, sure.

But I think it's a lot easier to get away with faking news in difficult and egregious ways—the speed of the Internet, the anonymity of the Internet, the reach of the Internet. And the political atmosphere now, that we have a president who is openly saying that the press is the enemy of the people, which feeds what a lot of Americans have sensed and felt in their lives and in their experiences. It's a lot harder to push back.

Part of what stopped the fake news epidemic of the late 19th/early 20th century was respectable press organizations said: "We're going to fight back against this. We don't like this. This is not good for our reputations." The New York World, which had been accused of faking, set up a thing it called the "Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play" in 1913, and it invited readers to send them examples of stuff they found in the newspaper that was not true, and they would investigate it. Sort of an early ombuds.

DEVIN STEWART: Ombudsman, yes.

ANDIE TUCHER: They would report it out, and they would say: "Yeah, you're right. You're wrong." But the newspaper press itself said, "We've got to police this." But they had some authority to do that, and I don't think there is an institution now that carries the same authority.

DEVIN STEWART: Moral authority.

ANDIE TUCHER: Moral authority, exactly. It's the moral authority in all sorts of institutions—the press, the church, the government, corporations. All of those are losing moral authority.


ANDIE TUCHER: Oh, you can say it goes back to the 1960s. You can say it's because more people are taking part in public life and have their own opinions that have not been part of the public sphere before. Part of the problem is too much democracy can put pressures on the institutions that support it, which is not to say that less democracy is a good idea. Clearly that's not what I want to say, but it makes things different.

DEVIN STEWART: Andie, 400 years of journalism in 30 minutes. Thank you so much.

ANDIE TUCHER: It was fun. It was a pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Andie Tucher is a historian and a professor at Columbia Journalism School, and we will look out for Misinformed very soon.

ANDIE TUCHER: Thank you.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks a lot.

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