You want "fake news," I’ll give you "fake news."
It’s not like you haven’t heard that phrase and it’s not like you can’t get it elsewhere, from an ever-expanding universe of places. It’s everywhere and it is bad.
A recent "60 Minutes" featured a chilling 13-minute segment (www.cbsnews.com/60-minutes) that began with Scott Pelley saying, "In this last election, the nation was assaulted by impostors masquerading as reporters. They poisoned the conversation with lies on the left and on the right. Many did it to influence the outcome, others, just to make a buck. The president uses the term ‘fake news’ to discredit responsible reporting that he doesn’t like, but we’re going to show you how con artists insert truly fake news into the national conversation with fraudulent software that scams your social media account. The stories are fake, but the consequences are real."
The most recent issue of Time magazine has a cover story that asks, "Is Truth Dead?"
"Fake news" used to have a very specific and relatively simple meaning. It meant lies, total fabrications. It is trickier now, more subtle and pervasive.
Understandably, this may seem to you a recent phenomenon. It is not.
Consider the diabolical doings of a newspaper editor named Francis Pharcellus Church — a fake name if there ever was one, don’t you think? — who gave the world one of the greatest and most durable "fake news" stories in history.
It took place long ago, on Sept. 21, 1897, when this man wrote an editorial in his New York Sun. It was in response to a letter the paper had received from an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon asking a simple question: "Is there a Santa Claus?"
What did Church do? Did he simply tell her the truth?
No, he did not. He wrote, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."
He laid it on thick, too, adding, "No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."
That was harmless, of course, and in its way charming.
Here is another "fake news" example that is closer to home; in fact it took place here at Tribune Tower on Oct. 22, 1933, when this newspaper published two photographs of Adolf Hitler, then the chancellor of Germany.
One showed him giving a speech in front of an estimated 500,000 "farmers and storm troopers" in the city of Bueckeberg. The other was, as the caption noted, "a baby picture of the future nazi leader before he attained the age of one year."
The baby is terrifying-looking. He’s got a mop of greasy hair dripping down his forehead, a mouth twisted grotesquely. He squints into the camera with dark, menacing eyes. He might have found a place at Riverview’s Freak Show: "Evil Baby."
Trouble was the photo was a fake, quickly uncovered when Hitler saw copies of the many other newspapers that ran it. He had his people contact the various newspapers across the world and they, rightly, issued corrections, and some even ran photos of the real baby Adolf supplied by the German government.
Acme Newspictures, which had distributed the photo, tried to get to the bottom of the matter but was never successful in tracking down the origin of the photo or the person who supplied it.
And that was that until 1938, when an Ohio woman named Harriet Downs saw the photo in a magazine and immediately recognized it as a photo of her then 8-year-old son, John May Warren (by a previous marriage), that she had taken when he was 2.
She recognized him even though the photo had been seriously altered. The original was of a cute little kid in a white bonnet, but it had had been changed (pre-Photoshop, it goes without saying) into the demonic-looking photo that appeared in the papers.
Acme issued a further correction, and some papers ran photos of the original alongside that of the contemporary John Warren. Still the mystery lingered and the story was one that was talked about often in places frequented by newspaper folk, especially since it came with a tragic final chapter: A few months after the identity of the baby was revealed, little John Warren died when he fell from his bicycle and pierced his heart on a milk bottle that shattered as he was toting it home from the grocery store.
(A couple of weeks ago, the fascinating website Atlas Obscura, www.atlasobscura.com, published a story about this by Jeffrey Davis, John’s great nephew, and there’s another earlier story about it at the lively Museum of Hoaxes site, www.hoaxes.org.)
I first heard this story decades ago from Chicago newspaper reporter Curtis MacDougall, who had written about it in one of his many books, "Hoaxes," in which he also defined a hoax as "a deliberately concocted untruth made to masquerade as truth."
And so here we are now, living in a world awash — drowning? — in truths and untruths.
As Pelley said in his "60 Minute" report, "Never in human history has more information been available to more people. But it’s also true that never in history has more bad information been available to more people. And once it’s online, it is ‘news’ forever."
Do we care?
Perhaps not, according to a dispiriting New York Times story in December with the headline "As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth."
But we should care. We all have to be more vigilant, discerning and willing to spend the time and energy to find credible sources for news and information, to seek the truth.
Google and Facebook are actively trying to figure out how to identify "fake news" and stop it from spreading, and a variety of websites (Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com and others) are in the business of correcting "fake news."
Still, it’s going to be a struggle, harder than shutting up the drunk on the bar stool next to you who "knows" that Brad and Angelina are getting back together, Dustin Johnson will win the Masters and what Vladimir Putin ate for dinner.
As we used to hear in the newspaper business, long before the internet, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."
Good advice. And so good luck … to us all.
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