Fake the news? Who would do such a thing?
Well, in Nevada, we’re known through the history of newspapers for being among the best at making up stories and publishing them as fact.
Here’s a terrific look back at some of the champions of fake news through the decades, by Jack Shafer of Politico. (Note that he lists Stephen Bates, journalism professor at UNLV, among his brain trust.)
Mark Twain — who made up his own name, of course — gained his reputation at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City by concocting tall tales when the facts were looking a bit boring.
One of the earlier falsehoods in the Territorial Enterprise was written by Clement T. Rice in 1863 when he pretended to be Twain and apologized to all the people that Twain had ridiculed, according to Jake Highton, who devoted an entire chapter of his Nevada newspaper history to “Hoaxes: Western Journalism Personified.”
One of Twain’s own well-known fabrications was “The Petrified Man,” which told of a mummified figure found sitting upright, “the right thumb resting against the side of the nose …” It was reprinted in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1862, which would be the 19th-century equivalent of going viral.
Another of Twain’s made-up news stories had a much more serious bent. It described a horrible massacre in Empire City, on the outskirts of Carson City, in which a man named Hopkins had butchered his wife and seven children before slitting his own throat.
The next day, Twain wrote: “I take it all back.”
Do you think Philip Hopkins, who owned a bar in the vicinity at the time, might have had a basis for libel?
Twain, for his part, said later it never crossed his mind that people would actually believe his story, “hedged as it was by all those tell-tale absurdities and impossibilities.” But one of his competitors, the Gold Hill Daily News, which had lifted the story whole from the Enterprise, was not amused at being hoodwinked.
“In short, A LIE — utterly baseless, and without a shadow of foundation,” the Daily News wrote, according to Highton’s book.
Heck, this very blog — the Wabuska Mangler — is named for the clever device of Morning Appeal editor Sam Davis, who invented an entire newspaper in 1889 just to have a rival with whom he could joust.
“During the winter that wicked little sheet, the Wabuska Mangler, had been snowed up in Mason Valley, but yesterday Mr. Lovejoy, the publisher, was in the city making arrangements to resuscitate the journal … the editor has been slinging mud at the Appeal for years,” Davis wrote.
Lovejoy was real. The newspaper was not.
In more modern times, there was the sensational North Lake Tahoe Bonanza cover story and photo of Tahoe Tessie, a creature roaming the depths of Lake Tahoe and frightening boaters and swimmers. The work of photographer Jim Grant and news editor James Robbins, it was published on April 1, 1992 — the date apparently having no significance for some readers.
Jeff Ackerman, who was publisher of the Bonanza in Incline Village at the time and had no advance knowledge of the hoax, remembered in particular one of the dozens of flummoxed people who called the newspaper office that morning.
“She was mad as a hornet because she would take her daily walk along the beach, and now even her dog was afraid to go near the water,” Ackerman recalled. “I told her, ‘Lady, the bigger news here is that your dog reads my newspaper.'”
I don’t know if that’s true, but it makes for a good story.
Yes, as Shafer so aptly points out in his Politico piece, we don’t remember a time when there wasn’t fake news.
Maybe we’ve also forgotten that the history of journalism was built on two-newspaper towns, with each catering to its own political audience. One hundred years ago, there were 36 newspapers in Nevada — of which fifteen were listed officially as Democratic and 16 as Republican.
Journalists are professional skeptics. Readers need to be skeptical, too, of everything they read and hear. I don’t mean cynical. Skeptical.
Here is how professional journalists read a story to help them judge whether it’s true or not:
What is the source?
Not just the source I’m reading, but the source for the information in the article. There should be at least two, and they should be reputable. I should be able to get an idea from the article of how I can actually get the information from the original sources, or at least be able to check their credibility myself.
Most journalists aren’t experts at anything but journalism. Even if they see it with their own eyes, they’re still likely to ask the person next to them, “Did you see that?”
Can I confirm it myself?
It’s so simple. Just search Google news and see if multiple credible outlets are reporting the same thing. Read the various versions.
Is it news or opinion?
In the old days, we labeled news, opinion and advertising. Now it’s all a steaming gumbo of “media,” with the Wall Street Journal floating across the screen alongside the latest Facebook post from your uncle and a “native” article from Home Depot.
It’s not always obvious when a writer is trying to convey straight, unbiased information rather than offering an opinion, but it should be. I enjoy the openness brought to much of what is written today, acknowledging biases and shortcomings while honestly trying to get at the truth. But there is still a place for good old-fashioned reporting by people who simply are trying to get you the straightest information in the most direct fashion.
Where are the holes?
This is the test editors apply to stories. I think it’s kind of fun — but then, I was an editor for 20 years.
You can always find holes in a story. The question for journalists is how much time and space they have to backfill. Hundreds of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln because, each time, somebody found some hole in history they thought needed to be filled.
The basics: Who, what, where, when, why and how. I watched hundreds of interviews on television during this election cycle where the interviewer never asked “Why?” or “How?” It’s not journalism if you don’t ask those questions.
Beyond that, obvious holes in a story exist when the other side(s) aren’t represented. It need not be “he said, she said” where equal weight is given to all points of view. But you need to ask, what would be the response to this? What questions would the other side be asking?
As a reporter, I covered a lot of trials. Many times, I listened to the prosecutor lay out his case and thought, “Wow. This guy is so guilty.” Then the defense attorney got his turn, and I thought “Hmm. Tough choice for the jury.”
What are my own biases?
This the toughest, because we are who we are. My upbringing, experience and education have shaped how I see the world.
Can I step back for a moment to imagine who else might be reading this? Would they think it was true? If not, what do I need to present as evidence to convince them? Maybe I can’t, but I need to consider a wider perspective than my own.