For the 121st episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, author Andie Tucher discusses the early history of U.S. newspapers and her new book, Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History.
Andie Tucher is H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism and Ph.D. Program Director at the Columbia Journalism School. She also is the author of Happily Sometimes After: Discovering Stories from Twelve Generations of an American Family.
Andie Tucher: On the front page of the Evening World was a story about a lizard that bit you and you died the next time the clock struck four, whether it was four in the morning or in the afternoon.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
Fake news. It’s a phrase heard all too often in recent years, but what many people consider to be a new phenomenon actually isn’t at all. As today’s –
– guest notes, concerns about the authenticity and authority of American journalism are exactly as old as American journalism.
We have a number of prior podcast episodes that relate to the history of fake and sensational news, such as our shows about the penny press, the moon hoax, and the eras of yellow journalism under Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, for example. But in this episode, we take you back to the colonial period, the early years of the newspaper industry in the 1600s and 1700s, which have their own sensational tales to tell. We’re here with Andie Tucher of the Columbia Journalism School to talk about her new book Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History, which takes readers from the 1600s to the present day.
Andie, welcome to the show. Why did you wanna write this book that tracks the intersection of truth, fake news, and the press going back to the beginning of newspapers in the country?
Andie Tucher: Oh, I think I’ve been writing this book my whole life. I’ve always been interested in conventions of truth telling. I started in journalism; my dissertation was about the penny press –
– and its use of “humbug” and “hoax” and “tall tale” and all sorts of jolly stuff. Um, but in order to really understand how you say something that persuades other people that it’s true, I felt you needed to also understand how people tell things that aren’t true, how those negotiations are carried out. So I’ve looked at truth-telling conventions not just in journalism but also in photography and in family stories, and I find it just utterly fascinating – the word I use is negotiation between the parties.
Teri Finneman: So, tell us more about the title “Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History.” How are you distinguishing between fake news and fake journalism as separate items?
Andie Tucher: I think it’s really important to distinguish those. Fake news, it’s completely lost its meaning because it’s been bandied about so much in contemporary life. Fake news usually tends to mean –
– misinformation. That can come to you through social media or through popular culture or through your grandmother. Fake journalism, I think, is something much more insidious. It’s what I call the efforts by other actors, by opinion advocates, by political figures, by opposition figures to use the credibility that has been built around the conventions of professional journalism to disguise themselves in those conventions, and to use those conventions to spread misinformation or falsehoods or opinion that they’re pretending is fact. That, I find, is a much more pervasive phenomenon in contemporary society, and I think a dangerous one.
Teri Finneman: Let’s begin by diving into the book itself and give some background on the first newspaper in the United States, Publick Occurrences, which launched in Boston on September 25, 1690.
Give us some of the early background on the newspaper and its publisher.
Andie Tucher: Most journalism historians have spent some time looking at Publick Occurrences. It’s famous. It’s the only issue that survives of a 17th century American newspaper. But most people have not actually read what the stories are and what they say, and I got very interested because he starts out – here’s a guy who comes over from London to set up the first newspaper that the British-American colonies have ever seen. He’s gotta persuade people that he’s telling the truth. He’s negotiating truth with them, so he has a mission statement: “I’m going to just use the best sources for my information. If I find anything’s wrong, I’m going to correct it in the next issue. I hope you’ll tell me if people are spreading misinformation so I can expose them.” He’s making a big case for himself as somebody who understands the truth.
And then he tells this item about the king of France sleeping with his daughter-in-law.
And now, many journalism historians have said, “Well, that must be why he was shut down by the authorities, because it was he was saying rude things about a king.” Well, it was also fake news. It was fake news because the king of France didn’t have a daughter-in-law, at least not at that point. I think what the editor of the paper was doing was he was a staunch dissident Protestant. The king of France was a Papist. The king of France had been persecuting Protestants. I think Publick Occurrences wanted to cast doubt on and undermine the king of France as an evil monster with a story that sounded like it really could be true, but wasn’t.
Teri Finneman: And that first issue, that, that was its last one, right?
Andie Tucher: Right, it was shut down right away. And it was shut down because it was publishing without a license, and the authorities in Boston were concerned about it. But they also, there’s a journal entry or something by one of the Boston councilors that said –
– he was making some high remarks, and, and clearly the criticism of the king of France was seen as above the, beyond the pale
Teri Finneman: It would be 14 years before another newspaper came about. In 1704, the Boston Newsletter launched. Uh, describe what this newspaper was like in its approach to news.
Andie Tucher: Oh, it was very different from Publick Occurrences. The Boston Newsletter was extremely serious. Publick Occurrences had lots of little, little anecdotes and little stories about the widower who hanged himself in the barn out of melancholy, and the boy who was crushed in a cider mill – Boston, you know, the Boston Newsletter had very little of that. It was interested in world affairs in the affairs of state in Europe, in economics. It was – Campbell intended his readers to be the elite, people who were involved in business and politics, and who were interested in that sort of thing. And it was extremely –
– serious, except for one weird little story that came out within a year or so of the first issue of the Boston Newsletter. In the midst of all of this stuff about European warfare and, and the heads of state, he had a long story about a young man who showed up in Boston with a wild story about how his uncle had been trying to kill him and sold him into slavery and, and on and on and on, and he had scar on his face where he had been slashed by pirates.
Um, and the Boston Newsletter was pretty excited by this story: here was a guy in town who was telling this great stuff, gave it a lot of column space. The very next issue, the following week, he had to go, “Oops, that was wrong. I retract that story.” But he pretended he had known all along it was fake and he was just letting the guy have his say before he would be slammed down. I think, I think that that was a – it was a sign to him that he should just stick to the real straight and narrow.
And the Boston Newsletter is, is very boring to read, for contemporary readers, although it served a purpose, at the time, that was being unfulfilled by anything else.
Teri Finneman: Ben Franklin’s brother, James, also had a newspaper during the colonial period. As newspapers started to become an industry, prior to the American Revolution, talk more about their approach to truth, and the role that Ben Franklin played in that.
Andie Tucher: They had varying rules. Ben Franklin’s brother, James, was, uh, was kinda, was kinda mischievous, and he was tweaking the authorities and poking the authorities and criticizing the authorities, all of which did not go over well in early 18th century Boston. At one point, he was, I think he was locked up or forbidden to publish his newspaper, and Ben did it in his own name. The bratty brother apprentice, Ben, ran the newspaper in his own name during that time. And Ben would write anonymous stories that were supposedly being written –
– by, uh, Silence Dogood, and he had a good time; he was being a bratty apprentice. When he went off and, and started his own newspaper, worked on his own newspaper, however, the Pennsylvania Gazette, he realized that he couldn’t be so bratty; he needed to worry about making a living. And his famous “Apology for Printers” set out a lot of, of what many, what newspapers at the time believed was true.
That a newspaper’s purpose was simply to present information to the public, from any side, it didn’t judge whether or not it was true, it put it out there and allowed people to make their own decisions about what was true and what was not, because truth would emerge – if people could discuss public affairs in the public square, truth would become possible and, and evident. So, when Franklin was criticized for having published an ad that denigrated the clergy, he said, “It was just, it wasn’t my fault. I was just telling what people gave me.
“I printed what people gave me. It’s like I make shoes the way people want them to be made.” Um, so the idea that a newspaper was simply something to present various snippets of information without taking any responsibility for whether or not they were verifiably true was common in the early 18th century.
Teri Finneman: You note the leadup to the American Revolution was a turning point, with emotional engaged reporting on matters of intense public interest, and the emergence of newspapers as active, essential, and opinionated participants in the democratic process. So give us some examples of what you mean by this, and the relationship between truth and newspapers at this time.
Andie Tucher: Any time there’s a crisis or a conflict, and we see it to this day, journalism fires up. People are excited, people are anxious, people want information, people want their side to be justified, people want the other side to be criminalized. So, it’s not unusual, it’s not, it’s not at all –
– weird that in the American Revolution newspapers changed from this straightforward objective “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach that Franklin was describing, into active players in this lifechanging revolution. But they, but they also, as is often common in times of stress and crisis, a lot of the reporting, a lot of the journalism was exaggerated. Because you want your side to win, the stakes feel very high.
So, in the American Revolution, a lot of newspapers, there were important serious reasons, debates by people like Tom Payne and John Dickerson, that were very, very thoughtful and politically sound. But they were also reports of massacres, and, and the Boston Massacre was played way up. The Journal of Occurrences was a sort of a underground newspaper that traveled between editors –
– and they would describe how ladies in the street were accosted by British soldiers, and, and young, uh, older men were, were beaten up by drunken British soldiers, a lot of stuff that was inflammatory. And might even have been true, but it also was very important for the newspaper editors to put that information out there, and it was important for people, for readers to believe that, that this confirmed that they were on the right side. So the newspapers played an important role in both informing the public but also in keeping the public’s attention focused, and giving them morale boosts, and, and making sure they would support the right side.
There were some newspapers that supported the Tories, the British side, and they did not fare well. They were, they were, some of them were boycotted, they were mobbed, their printers were attacked, so there was not a sense that freedom of the press demanded both sides –
– be presented. There was a sense that, “We gotta get, we’ve gotta get people to understand and support what’s going on, and here’s how we do it. We do it with these kinda stories.”
Teri Finneman: Everyone points to the Bill of Rights granting freedom of the press, but as you remind us, less than a decade after that passage, Congress, indeed, made a law abridging the freedom of the press, with the Sedition Act. What was the purpose behind that act and what impact did it have on the press?
Andie Tucher: Many people, many of the founding generation were completely stunned and surprised when political parties burst out of the – burst onto the scene. No one had expected, no one had wanted political parties. The idea was that the United States would win their revolution and they would be united and everybody would decide together what was best for the country and everybody would agree. It was a shock when they found out that not everybody did agree. So the political partisanship, the hyper-partisanship of this era was played out in the newspaper columns.
Newspapers were in no way objective. Objectivity was not thought of; nobody would’ve wanted it if it had occurred to anybody. Newspapers were seen as active players in this hyper-partisan effort to figure out how you do, how you run a democratic government – there was no model that they could draw on. The only ones most people knew about had, had perished centuries before. So the newspapers became avid participants in this ugly partisan debate, and often went too far, often published stuff that was not just, um, ugly but also untrue. Some of it was true. One of the most notorious stories of the era was that Thomas Jefferson had made a – concubine, was the, was the word they used – of an enslaved woman in his household, and that turned out to be true.
Um, but there was also a lot of stuff that was, that was just vicious, and the Federalists who –
– were in holding most of the government, at the time, decided that they had to stop this. They decided one way to do that was by law. So they passed a law that anything that criticized the government or brought the United States into disrepute would be criminalized. And they used it in a very partisan way, so that most of the editors who were caught up and, and, and, and charged and some of them convicted of these sedition were Republicans, were the opposition. It went too far and the Federalists lost in the next elections, in 1800, because they were seen as having gone too far. It was not what many people wanted.
Teri Finneman: We focused on the very early years of journalism today, but your book goes all the way into the present, uh, so I wanna discuss just a few other sections of the book today, yet. Uh, I wanted to jump ahead to your discussion of photo history, and how people, including Edgar Allan Poe –
– raved that photography was an opportunity to show a more absolute truth, after early newspapers failed to achieve this standard. But then, it didn’t quite work out that way. Uh, what is the history of photography and the intersection with truth?
Andie Tucher: Oh, that’s an interesting one, but it’s also very typical of the coming of many new technologies that have to do with communications. In many cases, a new technology makes everybody excited, makes everybody feel, “Oh, it’s gonna bring us all together, it’s gonna show us a deeper truth, it’s going to be more democratic.” Um, and it also often finds its way into nefarious hands that, that figure out, very quickly, how to manipulate it and how to – as people are trying to figure out how this new technology works, how you figure out how to trust it, what it can do, what it can’t do, what it should do, what it shouldn’t do, as people are figuring all of that out with this new technology, there is always somebody on the, uh, standing there on the outskirts figuring out –
– how to manipulate it. And with photography, one of the very first of those manipulators was a man named William Mumler, who was a photographer based in Boston and New York in the 1860s.
And very shortly after Poe was saying, “Boy, with photography, you can just see real life and it’s incredible. It’s so much better than any painting,” Mumler is selling photographs to people that seem to show the normal sitter – the sitter is sitting in a chair looking like a normal person, and over the shoulder of the sitter you see a ghostly image. And Mumler the photographer says, “I don’t know how it happened. It just, I opened the lens and, and somehow or other, the light and who knows, but that’s a spirit. You can see the spirit of your dead mother or your dead wife or your dead brother.” And a lot of people wanted to believe that, especially in an era of the Civil War when there was so much death and so much grief, but also because –
– people didn’t know what a camera was capable. And it seemed kinda magic anyway, the way an image could just sort of get stuck, get preserved forever.
So when Mumler was charged with fraud, he had a lot of supporters in the courtroom who were cheering him on and who supported his work. And the charges didn’t go anywhere. The judge said, “I am morally certain that this is a fraud, but I can’t figure out how you did it so we have to let you go.” And many people thought, “Well, that’s just what it should be.” There’s a famous photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost looming over her shoulder. And it was done by some kind of double exposure, and I don’t think – I’ve tried to figure out exactly how that worked when Mumler would go into his darkroom and come out and say, “Here’s a picture of you. And, and who is that over your shoulder? That must be uncle Homer, right?”
And the sitter might say, “Uncle Homer? But he didn’t have a beard.” “Well, he’s grown a beard –
– “in heaven,” and, and [laughs] eventually, eventually the sitter was persuaded because the sitter wanted to be persuaded. I think that’s how it worked.
Teri Finneman: We have episodes about both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and the yellow journalism era, the time period best known for sensation in newspapers that our listeners can check out, and read in much more detail in your book. Uh, but this is a fascinating story from your book that I didn’t know, and that listeners should know. After Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911, his son, Ralph, worked to overhaul the New York World out of the yellow press era, and to put an end to how many inaccuracies were in newspapers. He set up a Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play. Tell us more about this and how that went over.
Andie Tucher: Yeah, Ralph Pulitzer was trying to burnish the reputation of his father, Joseph. Joseph’s New York World was, um, an important paper that was also, that was both sensational and informative. He walked a fine line, and sometimes fell –
– over it and fell off it. But he did try to make a paper that was, that was informative, particularly for the masses of immigrants who were pouring into the big cities, including New York, at the time. So the paper had a reputation that was a little dicey. Ralph wanted to make it better. Ralph wanted to distinguish his paper from Hearst’s papers once and for all. Hearst’s papers were the kind of papers that were doing what I’ve referred to as fake journalism, using the guise of journalistic credibility and journalistic format in order to just report whatever, whatever the heck you wanted.
Ralph wanted to distinguish the World from that, so he set up the Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play in order to act as a sort of an ombuds. He had staffers reading the paper every day, looking for errors. He invited readers to send in corrections that they would like to be seen. He authorized the firing –
– of reporters who too often made mistakes, who were hauled up before the Bureau. It was a relatively successful effort for a while, but it also was kind of handicapped because the World had a double identity. The morning Worldwas a serious and important paper that was widely trusted by many people, but there was also the afternoon World – actually, it was called the Evening World, but the World that came out later in the day. And that was an entirely separate edition that was a lot more sensational in order to keep competing with Hearst on Hearst’s terms. So, even as Ralph was, was talking about accuracy, accuracy, accuracy, even as he made his speech to the first class at the Columbia Journalism School, telling them, “Stamp out fakes. A fake is a degenerate and perverted monstrosity,” even as he was doing that, the Evening World was continuing to publish things like
– my favorite example was the 4:00 lizard.
That appeared just three months after he was there talking to the Columbia Journalism School about how terrible fakes were. On the front page of the Evening World was a story about a lizard that bit you and you died the next time the clock struck four, whether it was four in the morning or in the afternoon. I think this was probably fake, but it was sitting on the front page between a story about a storm and a story about a poisoning as if it were actually true. So, even Ralph, even with his really laudable and, and, and high-minded efforts to persuade people that newspapers should be trusted, newspapers could be trusted, he was continuing to bow to the commercial imperatives of giving people entertainment, which is what they expected. And the bureau eventually faded away sometime around World War I when people were more interested in other things.
Teri Finneman: Well, this is a terrific book. I’d encourage anyone to go pick it up. As I mentioned before –
– the book moves from the very beginning of journalism history up until the present day. Uh, one of the last things that I wanted to ask you, after writing this book, what are your main takeaways for both historians and for journalists today? And are newspapers just doomed to never live up to their ideals?
Andie Tucher: Oh, I hope that’s not true, and I worried, as I wrote the book, that it would, it would catastrophize journalism, that it would suggest that journalism was, was hopeless. I really don’t believe that’s true. I believe that, that newspapers, and other forms of journalism, there has always been horrible, stupid, inane, commercially-driven stuff, but there has also always been stuff that is smart, that is dedicated, that is trying to inform the people, that is trying to reform. Even in the midst of the 19th century when everything was so horrible, there were also important newspapers like, well, there was Nellie Bly going undercover in the mental hospital. There was Frederick Douglas’ abolitionist newspapers.
There was Ida B. Wells-Barnett exposing the truth about lynching. So, I don’t want to leave people with the impression that journalism is and has been terrible. But I also think that there is such a threat, nowadays, from the fake journalism, especially in the empire of right-wing media – but not always. You can find it on the left as well – that are kind of taking over and appropriating the whole idea of objective reporting. Even as mainstream journalists are acknowledging their subjectivity, are acknowledging that there are real issues and, and, and problems with objectivity. I worry about that, because it leaves the empire of the fake journalists to claim that they are the ones who are objective and the ones who can define what real journalism is.
And it leaves the mainstream –
– ones, who are trying really hard, in a place where they’re saying, “Well, you know, here, here – we really believe and think and hope this is true.” That’s not necessarily a good place to be.
Teri Finneman: And then, the final question that we always ask our show is, why does journalism history matter?
Andie Tucher: Oh, because journalism is often a source for historians and they need to know how to read it. It’s astonished me, all the time, that anyone can look at the front page of the New York Times and say, “Well, this is biased, and this is not true, and this was true yesterday but not today,” and everybody can be a critic of today’s New York Times. But the minute it goes on microfilm or becomes digitized or its paper starts to yellow, it’s becomes a primary source and people often lose that critical eye. One of my favorite examples there is, is the interview. In the 19th century, interviews were seen as completely fakeable. Many journalists said, blithely and, and cheerfully, “I always fake interviews, ’cause I –
– “can’t get people to tell me what I want them to tell me.” But any historian who looks back to the 19th century and tries to use an interview in a newspaper as a source, as a historical trustworthy source could be really, really sorry [laughs], because it often – they need to understand how truth worked and what the expectations for truth were in newspapers of various eras. It wasn’t always exactly as it is today.
Teri Finneman: Well, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Andie Tucher: Thank you, Teri, this has been a lot of fun.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: goodnight and good luck.