Roots of fake news ? Look towards the late 19th century&recent failures of Western elites

Yellow journalism + 40 years of broken promises amplified by media sowed the roots of discontent and distrust

The past two years have been filled with incessant references to “fake news” and polls showing Western populations increasingly distrusting their media. The majority of Americans get their news from Facebook, which has famously shied away from recognizing itself as media. The acceleration of the chasm between the general population and the media bubble crystallized with the current thesis that Facebook allowed the Brexit campaign and the US 2016 campaign to be disturbed by the alleged weaponization of its profiles and feeds. The past 40 years have essentially been 40 years of broken promises where the political and economic elites have let the middle class accrue debt to compensate flat wages and have that debt explode in their face with the Great Recession. The public has felt since 2007 distrust in media that they judge as complicit with corrupt elites that did not warn them of impending economic doom. What’s even more interesting to note is that this growing and deep distrust of media by the general public is not at all new and its roots go as far back as the 19th century.

William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism famously precipitated the Spanish American war in 1898 as per his famous quote when cabling back to his Cuba correspondent: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The 19th century was replete with made-up, fake news as popular newspapers’ rivalries fuelled an incessantly amoral gotcha journalism. As per Newsweek’s Petra S. McGillen’s April 7 story:”sending a reporter abroad was expensive, and not every paper could shoulder the cost. Those that couldn’t found a creative and much cheaper solution: They hired local staff writers to pretend they were sending dispatches from abroad. By the 1850s, the phenomenon was so widespread in Germany that it had become its own genre — the “unechte Korrespondenz,” or “fake foreign correspondent’s letter,” as people in the German news trade called it.”

The romantic version à la All The President’s Men of journalism as a respected public trust is much more recent and is a sort of Potemkin pseudo reality. The decline of cash generating media monopolies elegantly mirrors that of the US and other Western middle classes starting in the 1990s. The 1945–1975 era dubbed “les Trente Glorieuses” by French scholar Fourastié was followed by stagflation and the middle classes started to experience long term unemployment and decreasing wages.

The political elites in Europe have been blaming high unemployment on immigration, mimicked in this in the US with Trump’s “Mexicans are rapists” one-liners in the 2016 election. Middle class citizens who once trusted the media as a partner in the democratic process did not miss the various scandals such as: the Washington Post’s fake 1981 Pulitzer, Timisoara 1989, Stephen Glass’s fabrications, Jayson Blair’s and many more. Add to this the introduction of Fox News by Rupert Murdoch and the tabloidization of US media accelerated and news became entertainment, and Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity passed themselves off successfully as newsmen. This slow but steady debasement of the role of media as the 4th estate coincided with so-called traditional media enjoying a short boom before Craig Newmark’s Craigslist threw his digital stones at their glass houses and the end of their monopolies on information. When future media historians examine the 20th century US they will most probably conclude that its local media monopolies were an anomaly. We’re now increasingly back to newspapers as social badges for moneyed interests. The cash injection by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim in the NY Times is but one example of the acquisition of media outlets by powerful business interests.

Social media was once thought to be the renaissance of a public and democratic agora has descended into a cesspool of hate, hatred for intelligence and science. History often teaches us that one step forward is usually followed by two steps backwards. It does appear that we’re in the step backwards phase of the public’s relationship with the media and that will surely reconfigure the democratic process. The responsibility of the reluctant stewards of media, such as Facebook’s Zuckerberg, is therefore paramount and it is up to concerned citizens to make sure they live up to it.