Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

Over the past couple of years there has been increasing distrust of the media, evidenced most clearly by the tag line “Fake News” that are often appended to stories which are in reality little more than an opposing viewpoint.

Some media consumers, unfortunately, are unable to differentiate between stories which occasionally report erroneous information inadvertently and the idea that journalists are purposely misreporting information to undercut those whose politics they disagree with.

Yes, some journalists, particularly those working at high-paying positions in the nation’s media centers, tend to be insulated in a world which is far different from that of most middle- and lower-class individuals, which results in an echo chamber of sorts.

But for those who believe that today’s media is intentionally lying in what they report, one need consider the media of the past.  Among the best-known examples is the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898. Newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst ginned up false articles about a plot by Spain to sink the ship in Havana Harbor, helping precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wartime, at least in recent decades, has proven to be a breeding ground for baseless media reports, perhaps in part because censorship has been doled out with a far heavier hand as the world has become more literate.

In World War I, for example, newspapers from both Entente and Central Powers nations created stories out of whole cloth, including fictitious stories about major battles, well-known warships being sunk and key military and political figures being killed.

Consider this excerpt from Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, describing French newspapers’ preoccupation with reporting on the welfare of Wilhelm, the German crown prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm and commander of the German 5th Army during the early months of the war:

“On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane.”

Of course, as Hastings points out, no one of these stories contained the smallest element of truth. Was it malicious, reporting on rumors, wishful thinking, or simply journalists looking to fill space? One hundred-plus years later it’s hard to say.

Despite French media reports to the contrary, Wilhelm survived not only World War I, but into World War II, living until 1941.

Today, unfortunately, there are those who believe what they want to believe when it comes to the media.

For the rest of us, a healthy dose of skepticism and an understanding that no journalist wants to go hat in hand to his or her editor and tell them their outlet needs to run a correction should be of assistance in keeping one’s composure when the news rubs one the wrong way.

(Top: Wilhelm, crown prince of Germany, with cane, having survived numerous “near-death” experiences in just the first few months of World War I.)

18 thoughts on “Today’s ‘Fake News’ has nothing on yesterday’s Yellow Journalism

  1. Cotton Boll,
    I’ve read that the USS Maine was later discovered to have exploded because of an internal engine problem, nothing to do with the Spanish. Reminds me of a good book, “The First Casualty,” by Phillip Knightley. The author claims the first casualty of every war is truth.

    • I’ve read that a number of theories regarding the explosion of the Maine, none of which had to do with the Spanish and most all focusing on accidental explosion of one sort or another. Extremely unfortunate given what the Philippine people suffered under US occupation in the ensuing years after the latter took over from the Spanish.

      • Funny you should mention the Philippines. That, to me, was the saddest outcome of the Spanish-American war, if Howard Zinn’s “A Peoples’ History of the United States,” is to be believed.

        Yes, Hearst wanted a war, which could sell lots of stock on Wall Street. The more I read about American history, the more powerful and sinister the NYSE looks.

      • It, apparently, was an awful outcome for residents of The Philippines. There’s been a recent clamor to rename US forts named after Confederate generals. They ought to rename the fort named after Gen. Leonard Wood, who was in charge of the slaughter at the Moro Crater Massacre in the Philippines in 1906.

        Of approximately 1,000 native inhabitants, mostly women and children who had fled because they didn’t want to fight, US troops killed all but six over four days, simply firing into the crater without stop. At one point, they lined up a machine gun and simply swept it from side to side, against people armed only with knives and spears. That’s imperialism at its very worst.

      • It’s hard to comprehend all the violence that has soaked American history in blood, yet we claim to be a “democracy” or a “republic.” Information like this makes me ashamed to be American.

      • Well, unfortunately, pretty much the history of every country, at least those which have been in existence for any period of time and are bigger than, say, San Marino, is littered with such episodes. And it’s been this way for a long, long time.

      • Cotton Boll,
        I guess the US stands out because it is more modern, with the biggest, most advanced war toys in history, as well as the transportation facilities to spread our “influence” around the world.

        It interests me that the Chinese invented gun powder but didn’t use it for weaponry. Only for fireworks. It took Westerners to develop that market. Also, the Asians, in the early days, did most of their trading internally. The British forced Chinese markets open to Westerners, largely through fostering the opium trade (smuggling). Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its markets to the West.

        Off topic, I know, but the Philippines brings up a lot of associations.

      • Yes, it’s easy for nations to take advantage of people whom they see as inferior to themselves. In the British case, that was most everybody that wasn’t British. We seem to be trending that way, unfortunately.

      • Cotton Boll,
        Unfortunately, we are the ideological descendants of the British. I just finished reading a biography about Benjamin Franklin and his disenchantment with the British, leading up to the Revolution. Specifically the arrogance.

  2. As William Randolph Hearst told his man in Havana, ‘You supply the news, I’ll supply the war.’

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