BY CHLOE YOUNG
A review of Not Exactly Lying: Fake News and Fake Journalism in American History by Andie Tucher, Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2022, 384 pp.
In Not Exactly Lying, Andie Tucher analyzes the phenomenon of fake news and fake journalism throughout American history. In using the term “fake,” the author refers to something “purposefully untrue” created by those who understood “that what they were saying was false or deceptive.” More than fake news, however, which can be spread by anyone through a variety of mediums, the author is interested in the practice of fake journalism—“a deceptive practice” of spreading false information, partisan opinion or propaganda throughs forms crafted to appear as “‘real’ independent journalism rooted in impartial investigation and rigorous verification.” According to Tucher, since the American press’ inception, a battle has existed between “practitioners of the real” and “perpetrators of the fake” in defining the role of journalism. Most pressing in the country’s present age, Tucher asks, “what happens to democracy when fake journalism looks more and more like truth and fake truth like journalism?”
In the first three chapters, Tucher details the early evolution of the American independent press. Starting with the Revolutionary War in chapter 1, newspapers transitioned from a means of partisan activism to information about current events with the commercial press of the 1830s. But even the commercial press realized it did not need absolute truth to prosper. As journalistic norms of professionalism and objectivity were yet to be established, Tucher writes in chapter 2 that many reporters intensified or embellished their stories to entertain their readers. Editors, who were tasked with deciphering what news was, but not necessarily what was true, resorted to the headline “Important If True,” leaving the task up to readers themselves who were accustomed to hoaxes, fakes and embellishments. Many papers continued to participate in fierce partisanship, reaching a head by the Civil War, however such desperate times called on reporters to ensure greater accuracy in their accounts and the role of journalists began to shift from civilians to authoritative professionals providing a public service.
In chapter 3, Tucher asserts that the art of journalistic faking began with the interview. Almost impossible to ascertain if it had truly occurred, reporters would fake, embellish, redact or spice up their interviews with the goal of pleasing their readers. In 1887, William H. Hills, an editor for The Writer, praised papers that required reporters to “‘be able to ‘fake’ brilliantly to do the work well,” as faking was “not exactly lying.” He concluded that readers did not desire a “bare recital of facts.” However, faking began to lose its luster, becoming a smear more than an accolade, and newspapers who were chastised for publishing false reports issued corrections and apologies. The yellow press further complicated the push to get reporting right, as newspapers sensationalized coverage of the Spanish-American War. As society advanced into the beginning of the twentieth century, newspapers worked to professionalize their approach to gathering and disseminating the news. Less of a burden was put on the reader to decide the truth for themselves, as journalists worked to define their authoritative position. While faking became the enemy of respectable or serious newspapers, many papers held onto the sensationalism, creating two different audiences of readers.
Chapter 4 discusses how the exploitation of new technologies like photography, radio and film formed a complicated relationship alongside efforts to improve journalism from the 1880s to the 1920s. It wasn’t until technology had advanced enough to produce photos cheaply and efficiently at the beginning of the twentieth century that photography began to appear in the papers. The new occupation of news photographers worked to distinguish their pictures as authentic portrayals of current events from other photographers who retouched or faked their photos. In the emerging cinematic industry, there was little separation between reality and entertainment. Realizing their cameras were not apt to capture the fast-paced action, film companies produced their own reenactments of the Spanish-American War but did not always make it clear that they were doing so. Radio, “the uncanniest and most chaotic” of the new technologies, was prime for misinformation as amateurs or “hams” interfered with the Navy’s communication, sending out fake orders and distress calls. Such chaos, including misinformation about the Titanic disaster sparked the Radio Act of 1912, which required licenses for radio operators and banned fraudulent signals and calls.
Chapter 5 examines the ways in which government propaganda influenced the press during World War I. While American newspapers were originally diluted by propaganda and censorship from the Allies in Britain and France, the country formed its own mechanism of propaganda after joining the war—the Committee on Public Information. In the words of journalist George Creel, who helped spearhead the effort, “we did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.” However the CPI’s Division of News heavily influenced what American papers reported and even launched the country’s first government-produced newspaper. Journalists also battled censorship from the military and were forbidden to produce reports “that would lower morale, ‘embarrass’ their country or help the enemy.” In an anti-Germany effort, the Allied newspapers regularly reported on grotesque atrocities committed by Germany, including corpse-factories, where the German military was allegedly using dead soldiers' bodies for grease for munitions and pig feed among other things. When the British army intelligence chief admitted he had made the story up as disinformation in 1925, Americans began to disbelieve all wartime atrocity stories, including reports of Jews being murdered and concentration camps emerging which proved particularly problematic.
In the 1920s came the rise of the tabloid press, also known as jazz journalism, examined in chapter 6. Tabloids popped up all over the country, sensationalizing, exaggerating and outright faking stories as well as photographs, known as “coposographs.” The Daily News, America’s first tabloid founded in 1919, proclaimed that “nothing that is not interesting is news,” and soon became the highest circulating daily paper in the country. Unlike the penny press or yellow press, which participated in similar practices, the tabloids did not claim they were working for the public good but appeasing the public’s pleasure and did not pretend to hold themselves to rigorous journalistic standards. The radio, which became a commercial broadcasting system, was a different story. The Radio Act of 1927 established that the Federal Radio Commission had broad power over the airwaves, including censoring indecent language and revoking the licenses of those who spread lies that were bad for the public. Newspapers that had worked to differentiate themselves as serious and professional struggled. But as the country faced an economic struggle in the 1930s, the tabloids died off as readers preferred factual information that would better their lives.
In chapter 7, Tucher further explores the advancement of the radio in the 1940s and the coverage of World War II. According to Tucher, the radio proved to have an especially large influence on human behavior and a close relationship with falsity and propaganda. A CBS radio drama based on a science-fiction novel, for example, led many Americans to believe Martians were attacking the earth. While the Federal Communications Commission ruled that it did not have the authority to remove broadcasters, the National Association of Broadcasters was able to use its own regulations to ensure that a misinformation-spreading priest left the airwaves. As America entered World War II, both newsrooms and the government alike had goals of more accurately informing the people, avoiding the mistakes of World War I. The Office of Facts and Figures informed America of its defense policies, but the Office of Censorship also worked to ensure that journalists did not relay stories or photographs that could help the enemy. While journalists felt an enormous responsibility “to report fairly, scrutinize authority, and honor truth,” they also felt they owed a great loyalty to their country, often leaving out details or suppressing a story that might hurt America’s war effort. As the war ended, however, many journalists felt pride in their efforts to produce reporting that was “rooted in norms of objective verification, fairness, neutrality, and rationality.”
In the 1950s, the rise of the Cold War and the consequential Red Scare presented a challenge for journalists holding themselves to professional standards of objectivity. Chapter 8 explains how the uncritical reporting of newspapers misinformed citizens about Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who disseminated falsities and fear surrounding the Red Scare and tried to control and fervently discredit the press. It wasn’t until Americans were given total insight into the senator’s behavior on air through TV journalist Edward R. Murrow that McCarthy lost his public support. The Central Intelligence Agency began its own efforts to influence public opinion concerning communism by creating news publications, radio broadcasts, recruiting journalists and planting stories in the foreign press. By 1977, Carl Bernstein found that over 400 journalists had worked for the CIA, leading many journalists to protest the CIA’s involvement in the media as it tarnished its credibility.
Feeling a growing need to challenge the Establishment and explore complex societal issues plaguing the country, journalism began to shift away from its dedication to objectivity in the mid- to late-twentieth century in chapter 9. Through the “New Journalism,” journalists reported more narrative, interpretive pieces that employed their personal voices, but it often included some degree of faking. New technology, such as the World Wide Web, fewer regulatory policies and growing polarization further pushed the news industry into fierce partisanship by the 1990s. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, much fake journalism was driven by the growing right-wing press. As anyone could be a “reporter” on the internet, with no gatekeepers or editors, echo chambers of fake journalism emerged. The press’ partisanship was covert, however, as the right-leaning FOX News held the motto “we report, you decide.” Americans could determine a truth that suited their needs best while believing it was truly unbiased. While both FOX News and MSNBC claimed to be operating by professional journalistic standards, they served two vastly different audiences living in contrasting realities.
In Chapter 10, Tucher examines how growing partisanship and the internet created a choose-your-own media environment and the death of the authoritative news expert in the early 2000s. Seeking to control its own narrative, the Bush administration pushed out fake stories of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction that were picked up by the mainstream press and found particular favor with right-leaning news outlets. On the other hand, CBS produced damning reports against Bush using what was later found to be false documents. The new media actors of the internet, bloggers mostly anonymous and held to no ethical standards, pushed out their own fake and largely partisan news. Rumors that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen landed all over the media sphere. Even as the truth came out about the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and legitimacy of Obama’s citizenship, the public opinion of Republican news consumers was not swayed, as “reality can’t hurt and credibility can’t suffer in the well-barricaded precincts where fake news triumphs.”
In wrapping up her history of the press, Tucher examines how fake news and fake journalism have become worse than ever before present day. While Donald Trump did not invent the term fake news and was not the first president to manipulate journalism, his attacks on journalists and the notion of truth itself have presented unparalleled and unprecedented threats to democracy, according to Tucher. As the most partisan of news outlets label themselves as objective and truthful over their opposition, the fake journalists themselves have come to define the practice. Even efforts to repair the public’s faith may be lost, as many Americans fail to recognize the industry’s authority in a world of subjective truth. The author’s solution? An industry-wide adherence to Walter’s Lippman’s original ideal of objectivity. Not an objectivity that requires a false equivalence, but a disciplined practice “in which facts were investigated and verified with a scientific rigor sufficient to recognize one’s inevitable personal biases and keep them from compromising the essential accuracy of the story.” Tucher urges that if fake journalism can continue to define what journalism is, the truth will cease to exist.
Throughout the book, Tucher presents a riveting analysis on how fragile the notion of truth is in American democracy and how journalists have therefore struggled to guard that truth amid competing actors and interests. Most shocking to Tucher’s readers is likely that the current fascination with fake news is nothing new at all— faking in journalism is as old as the practice. While it can be hard to keep track of the author’s many assertions throughout a largely broad yet incredibly detailed historical analysis, her most fascinating assertion stands out. If journalism can’t authoritatively and authentically be recognized to uphold the truth, what can? The real journalists of today must differentiate themselves from the fake or journalism, “the tactic that was devised a century ago to stamp out fake news,” may be killed by fake journalism itself.
- Chloe Young is a research intern with the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.