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 also World War, living until 1951.

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.)

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Toddlers and phones: as smooth together as onions and eyeballs

Enter this under: Things to do to torment my children.

An unattended Chinese toddler locked his mother’s iPhone for nearly 47 years earlier this year after repeatedly entering the wrong passcode while playing with it.

The phone was given to the youngster to watch education videos but when the mother, who was only identified by her surname Lu, came home, she was horrified to find that the phone had been locked until the year 2066.

“iPhone is disabled, try again in 25,114,984 minutes,” the phone notification read, according to the Global Times.

(The story did not detail if the mother left the 2-year old home alone, or with some sort of apparently lackluster supervision.)

When Lu took her phone into an Apple store in Shanghai, Wei Chunlong, a technician, told her she could either choose to wait a few years before attempting to re-enter the passcode or reset her device, which will cost her all data not yet uploaded to the cloud, added Newsweek.

And I’ve been getting a good chuckle out of locking my girls’ phones for five minutes when they leave said devices unattended. I look like a bush leaguer compared to this Chinese toddler.

Louis Wigfall, Southern aristocracy gone to ‘seed’

Louis Trezevant Wigfall was, by nearly all accounts, an irascible sort, but one not unknown in South Carolina’s antebellum Edgefield District, which was a Wild West before there was a Wild West.

Born in Edgefield in 1816, Wigfall was born of into a planter family and attended South Carolina College and the University of Virginia, but breeding and education did little to mellow his countenance.

He was ardent proponent of the institution of slavery, and as a young man “he neglected his law practice for contentious politics that led him to wound a man in a duel (and be wounded himself) and to kill another during a quarrel,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Perhaps having worn out his welcome in the Palmetto State, Wigfall moved to Texas in 1846, almost instantly becoming active in Lone Star State politics, including “alerting” Texans to the dangers of abolition and the growing influence of non-slave states in the US Congress.

After several years in the Texas state legislature, Wigfall capitalized on the fear caused throughout the South by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and was elected to the US Senate that year.

He quickly gained a reputation as a leader among the “fire-eaters” – leading secessionists – taking his advocacy for slavery and against expanding the power of national government to the national stage.

Following Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860, Wigfall coauthored the “Southern Manifesto,” which stated that the Union was irretrievably broken and that the only hope for the South was independence.

“Wigfall helped foil efforts for compromise to save the Union and urged all slave states to secede,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

He appears to have lacked the chivalric manners evident in other key Southern figures of the era, remaining in the US Senate after Texas seceded, spying on the Union, chiding northern senators, and raising and training troops in Maryland to send to South Carolina. Even while serving as a US senator, he took part in the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter by rowing out under fire and dictating unauthorized surrender terms to federal commander Robert Anderson.

He was finally expelled from the Senate in mid-1861. Later that year he became a Confederate officer and promoted to brigadier general  before resigning from the army to take a seat in the Confederate Senate in 1862.

Initially, Wigfall supported Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but, perhaps not surprisingly, he quarreled with Davis before long.

During the last two years of the Confederacy Wigfall carried on public and private efforts to strip Davis of all influence.

He also blocked the creation of a Confederate Supreme Court, fearing Davis’ justices would interfere with states’ rights, according to the National Park Service.

Far from being a pragmatist, he opposed the arming of slaves and was willing to lose the war rather than admit that blacks were worthy of being soldiers.

Among his post-war activities was spending time in the United Kingdom, “where he tried to foment war between Britain and the United States, hoping to give the South an opportunity to rise again.”

As the small clipping from the Sept. 20, 1866, edition of Columbia Daily Phoenix makes clear, he had lost most, if not all of the stature may have once possessed.

Beneath an extract of a speech by Gen. William S. Hillyer about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and next to a copy of a letter by Emperor Napoleon III of France to King Victor Emanuel of Italy is a tiny blurb that reads, “Ex-Senator Wigfall is in London, looking seedy.”

Wigfall, who returned to US in 1872, returned to Texas in 1874 and died in Galveston on Feb. 18, 1874.

Ex-slave was among final Revolutionary War participants

Determining the last survivor of pre-20th century conflicts has long been an iffy proposition.

Birth registration in some US states, for example, did not begin until the 1920s, and a number of individuals who claimed to be the last surviving Confederate soldiers in their respective Southern states were nearly all later shown by census records to almost certainly have been born too late to have actually served in the 1861-65 conflict.

Even more problematic is determining the last veterans of the Revolutionary War. The US didn’t begin its national census until 1790 and it was a far leaner affair than that of today, with questioners seeking little more than the name of the head of household, their address and the number of other residents broken down by a handful of categories (free white males over 16, free white females, slaves, etc.). Not exactly a wealth of knowledge.

If one wanted to try to game the system to secure a veteran’s pension, there were no Social Security numbers, birth certificates or computerized records to overcome. One suspects a good story and a couple of willing accomplices willing to verify said story was all that was needed.

That said, the last generally accepted veteran of the American Revolution is Daniel Bakeman, who claimed to have served for a New York militia unit. Born in 1759, Bakeman died in 1869, at age 109.

Bakeman had no tangible proof of his service, stating that he had lost it in a fire earlier in his life. Of course, fires were a regular occurrence in pre-20th century America, so it’s quite possible that Bakeman was so victimized.

It appears that the last 10 or so men accepted as final surviving American veterans of the American Revolution came from northern states and/or died in northern states.

This is not surprising giving that when the final Revolutionary War vets were enjoying their last hurrah, the US Civil War was either taking place or the South was under Reconstruction, making it unlikely that historians or US government officials would be searching for Revolutionary War veterans in the South, or that Southern veterans would be applying for pensions.

Because a considerable part of the war was fought in the South, particularly in the latter years of the Revolution, and the war in the South often was a more informal affair, with an emphasis on guerilla fighting, meaning there was proportionately higher participation among the population, albeit not always on the American side, it’s almost certain that some War of Independence veterans in the south were overlooked.

One of these last survivors was Bob Wheeler, a former slave who died on Sept. 16, 1866, at age 107.

According to an Oct. 9, 1866, story in the Columbia Phoenix, “During the Revolution, Bob was a boy between sixteen and eighteen years of age, and as his memory and mind remained unimpaired, he delighted to tell of his recollections of the old Revolution when the red coats were the terror of every neighborhood. He was for some time a waiting boy for Gen. Wade Hampton.”

That would be Wade Hampton I (1752-1835), grandfather of Wade Hampton III, the Confederate cavalry commander and later SC governor and US senator.

Hampton served in the American Revolution as a lieutenant colonel in an SC cavalry regiment, and he later led US troops in the War of 1812.

Wheeler considered the first Wade Hampton “the next greatest man to Geo. Washington, and during his whole life had a great veneration and respect for the Hampton family,” the Phoenix reported. “When he heard of the promotion and success of our worthy and beloved (Confederate) Gen. Wade Hampton, the old man’s eyes would kindle, and he would stand almost on tiptoe, rejoicing at his achievements, saying that ‘the true old blood would show itself.’”

When the first Wade Hampton died, he was “left by his master’s will to help to support his three daughters,” the paper stated. “This duty he discharged faithfully and honestly.”

Wheeler died near Pomaria, SC, in today’s Newberry County. His burial site is unknown.

(Top: Hampton-Preston Mansion, Columbia, SC, owned by Wade Hampton I from 1823 until his death in 1835. In later years it hosted such luminaries as presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, and Senator Daniel Webster.)

Sir Lucius O’Brien, a politician who impressed only himself

Born on this date in 1731 was Sir Lucius Henry O’Brien, the third baronet of Dromoland, in County Clare.

O’Brien served in the Irish House of Commons for 30 years, but he proved a notable example of how nobility and brains often didn’t come in the same package.

In the mid-1770s, while serving in the Irish Parliament, O’Brien worked to remove restrictions on trade between England and Ireland, making frequent speeches in parliament opposing the government’s stand. However, “his speeches lacked lucidity, and his audience were said to be seldom the wiser for them,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography, a reference work detailing figures from British history.

In fact, O’Brien was eventually described as “a man who disagrees with the rest of mankind by thinking well of himself.”

If modern politicians were to look for a “patron saint,” O’Brien would seem an ideal choice.

(Top: Irish House of Commons in session, ca., 1780.)

Pocket watch of Civil War veteran on the auction block

Heritage Auctions, one the nation’s largest auction houses, has an array of pocket watches for sale this week. One, a silver Newark Watch Works timepiece, in engraved with the initials “O.W. Brackett” and the dates “Jan. 13th 1841 / Feb. 4th 1900”.

A quick bit of poking around on the Internet turned up this bit of information: O.W. Brackett was Orrin W. Brackett, a native of Freeport, Maine, who later moved to the coastal town of Yarmouth and served as private in Co. G of the 25th Maine Infantry Regiment. He was indeed born in 1841 and died in 1900.

It’s likely that good ol’ O.W. had his name engraved on the watch while he was alive, and a family member added his birth and death dates afterward.

Brackett’s Civil War duty was relatively uneventful: He signed up for a nine-month tour of duty, being mustered into service Sept. 5, 1862 in Yarmouth, along the Maine coast, and mustered out with the rest of his company on May 7, 1863, in Chantilly, Va.

The 25th Maine spent a majority of its service around Washington, DC, guarding the “Long Bridge” across the Potomac River, and constructing fortifications. It moved out of Washington onto Chantilly, Va, to serve picket duty before returning to Arlington Heights in 1863.

The 25th Maine didn’t participate in any battles but still lost 25 men to disease.

Brackett apparently felt his nine months of service were sufficient; he did not re-enlist after his tour ended. He likely bought the watch shortly after the war ended; the Newark Watch Co. was only in operation from 1863 until 1870.

O.W. Brackett’s Civil War powder horn, auctioned last year.

Brackett’s brother, Alvin M. Brackett, served as a private in Co. F of the 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment and was killed during Dahlgren’s Raid on Richmond on March 4, 1864, at age 21.

Another Orrin W. Brackett, a private in the 6th Maine Battery and likely a cousin of the aforementioned O.W., hailed from Waterville, Maine. He died of disease at home in March 1863.

Like many men of earlier generations, O.W. Bartlett seemed to be pretty handy with a pocketknife. Last July, Cowan’s Auctions sold a powder horn with the carving “O.W. Brackett / Co. G. 25 Maine Vols / Chantilly, VA / May 7, 1863. / Enlisted in / The Town of / Yarmouth / Sept. 5, 1862”. The 6-1/2 inch powder horn fetched $216.

Despite knowing O.W. Brackett’s full name and likely place of death, I have been unable to locate, at least online, his final place of rest. If nothing else, his memory lives on through his pocket watch.

Update: Thanks to a reader named Maxwell, O.W. Brackett’s final resting place has been located, in Riverside Cemetery in Yarmouth, Maine. 

What is obligation of government to those in high-crime areas?

North Charleston, SC, while far less known than the nearby tourist hotspot of Charleston, is garnering recognition it would probably like to avoid.

Although the city makes up but 14 percent of the region’s population, it accounted for 37 percent of its homicides during the past five years.

Last year was the deadliest, with 35 slayings, three more than in 2016. Yet in 2011, by comparison, there were just five homicides. At least some of the increase can be attributed to a change in policing.

Prior to 2015, when North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott after pulling him over for a traffic violation even though the latter was unarmed and running away, city police issued nearly 26,000 warning citations annually, many in minority neighborhoods with elevated crime rates, according to the Charleston Post and Courier.

Following the shooting death of Scott, for which Slager was recently sentenced to 20 years, that number fell to 15,000 in 2015 and 9,000 in 2016. It had risen to more than 9,000 last year, but was still well below what it was three years previous.

Proposals to bring back more police activity in areas with heavy crime, particularly violent crime, haven’t been met with enthusiasm.

“Ed Bryant, who leads the North Charleston NAACP, said he isn’t convinced that more traffic stops correlates with fewer homicides,” according to the Post and Courier. “One thing surely did result from the stops, he said: a negative perception of the police among many black residents.”

“Doing things over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity,” Bryant told the publication. “Now you’re going to resort back to the same thing and expect a different result? That’s insanity. … If they’re going to go back there, they’re asking for more trouble.”

More trouble as opposed to what: An average of one homicide every two weeks? A reputation as one of America’s most violent cities? Residents living in constant fear of being gunned down or having a family member or friend killed?

Others aren’t as adamantly opposed to increased policing, but it’s not clear how much more police presence they’re willing to accept.

City Councilman Ron Brinson suggested that a new approach to traffic stops could be customized based on what members of each neighborhood want.

“Do we need to go back to how it was done before? I don’t know,” he told the Post and Courier. “Surely, I think there is a middle ground.”

Shaundra Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said statistical data and personal accounts show that people were being stopped unfairly under the old initiative.

“Perhaps there could be a meeting of the minds,” she said. “But saying we need to go back to those tactics that hurt people is very concerning.”

Some believe that a heavy police presence in minority neighborhoods causes residents to see the police as the embodiment of the government and also creates fear and hostility toward the whole idea of government.

This can been seen, they assert, among young black men who keep their heads down in an effort to go unnoticed in the belief that it is the best way to keep from being arrested.

I do not live in a high-crime neighborhood nor am I a minority, so I don’t feel fully qualified to evaluate those assertions. I do understand that no one wants to live in a police state.

However, a key responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. Clearly that is not happening in parts of North Charleston.

Concern over alienating residents of minority, high-crime neighborhoods is understandable, but shouldn’t there at least equal concern about stemming violence and homicides in North Charleston’s minority, high-crime neighborhoods?