After Time asked “Is Truth Dead?” the digital giants Google and Facebook stepped up efforts to help readers distinguish genuine news information from unsubstantiated assertions and fabrications. This is encouraging. But the challenges of fake news, like misleading and erroneous journalism, are nothing new. Over 200 years ago, when accessing news and determining its accuracy was even more complicated than it is today, the nation’s founders understood the hazards of fraudulent, incorrect and incomplete information. They expected citizens — aided by a vigorous free press — to inform themselves and hold government to account. Our current mass media-driven politics, including unverifiable social media reports, combined with skepticism toward our institutions, create enormous challenges for citizens seeking credible news.
For most of human history, news traveled only as fast as a man or horse could run, or a ship could sail. With news passing orally from person-to-person, accuracy could be a casualty. In the early 18th century, false reports of the death of Louis XIV, the French monarch, circulated in the transatlantic English language press among colonists who exulted at the death of Britain’s long-time foe. Until the telegraph came into use, sources of extra-local news were wildly unreliable, based as they were on reports of travelers, ship captains, and opinionated letter writers.
Before the Civil War, mass circulation “penny” newspapers took hold in major cities, and publishers used hoax stories to compete for audiences, deliberately representing fiction as fact. In 1835 the New York Sun published “authoritative” articles about winged, human-like creatures on the moon. Five years later the same paper reported Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost-written account of a successful Atlantic crossing in a balloon. After selling wagonloads of papers, the Sun belatedly retracted these imaginary accounts.
More dangerous were the most famous purveyors of dubious news — Joseph Pulitzer, for whom the prestigious journalism prizes are named, and William Randolph Hearst, the model for “Citizen Kane.” Their epic battles for market share at the turn of the 20th century generated “yellow journalism” with tragic consequences. When Hearst’s agent in Havana disappointingly reported Cuba was peaceful, Hearst responded: “I’ll furnish the war.” Soon after, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, Hearst’s New York Journal claimed Spain had secretly detonated a torpedo under the Maine. The Journal even included fake blueprints of Spanish torpedoes. In reality, the facts supporting the 1898 Spanish War declaration resembled the imaginary “weapons of mass destruction” used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Clearly fake news can do more than sell newspapers; it shapes public opinion, sometimes with deadly consequences.
These historical lessons are critical for the United States, especially, because we are ruled by a popular or quasi-popular government. From our nation’s beginning, the founders put us on notice. “Public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one,” Speaker of the House James Madison wrote in 1791. Later, following two terms as president, Thomas Jefferson declared, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.” Like the rest of their generation, Madison and Jefferson recognized that only genuine information could safeguard “liberty and property.”
These historic warnings about the necessity of accurate information have a special urgency today because Madison and Jefferson’s successor in the White House has little regard for accuracy and fact.
Confident, indeed arrogant respecting his own intellect, and seemingly guided by vanity in determining what information is reliable, President Trump stands as a national role model antithetical to the founders. By publicly expressing contempt for factual information, he licenses precisely the forms of journalism, digital or printed, that are barriers to informed public opinion. Indeed, Mr. Trump’s reckless embrace of rumor as reliable recalls Madison’s admonition that “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”
Those of us who share Madison’s worries must strive to relegate false and misleading news to the farthest outskirts of public opinion. Madison, the key architect of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights, believed “knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” Let us hope that is true; and in the meantime follow his counsel by arming ourselves “with the power which knowledge gives.”
Richard D. Brown is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of History, Emeritus, at the University of Connecticut. His previous books include Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700–1865; The Strength of a People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870; and the co-authored microhistories The Hanging of Ephraim Wheeler: A Story of Rape, Incest, and Justice in Early America and Taming Lust: Crimes Against Nature in the Early Republic. His most recent book is Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War. A version of this piece appears at the Yale University Press website. Twitter: @RichardDBrownCT.