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 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.)

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‘Sunnyside’ a South Carolina tribute to Washington Irving

Not long ago this blog featured the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Charleston, an antebellum structure whose designers were inspired by illustrations from Washington Irving’s work Tales of the Alhambra.

Apparently Irving’s influence was of considerable significance in 19th century America. In Greenwood, SC, 180 miles northwest of Charleston, sits Sunnyside, an 1851 house employing an unusual blend of Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles of architecture. Tradition holds that both name and style were borrowed from Irving’s Hudson River Valley home.

Sunnyside is a one-and-a-half story structure with flush board siding covering the front façade and weatherboard siding covering the remainder of the house.

Sunnyside is essentially Gothic Revival in style, featuring a gabled roof and dormers with scalloped bargeboard. However, there are Greek Revival elements, including the portico covering the front façade and the heavy proportions of the interior details.  There are two compound interior chimneys located on each front gable end of the house and one large interior chimney located in the central rear section of the house.

The house has been associated with several locally prominent individuals over the years. It was built by Robert Gillam, a prosperous farmer, roads commissioner and postmaster. Gillam lost the home during Reconstruction, but it was purchased by his son-in-law, Augustus Aiken. Aiken kept the home until his wife died in 1877.

In 1906, Harry L. Watson, a newspaper editor and publisher in Greenwood, purchased Sunnyside. Watson also was chairman of Greenwood’s public school system, a trustee of Furman University, president of the South Carolina Press Association and the president of Greenwood’s National Loan and Exchange Bank.

Watson, who was also a noted historian, compiling and publishing a significant amount of information about the South Carolina Piedmont region, served as the publisher of Greenwood’s daily paper, the Index-Journal, from 1919 until his death in 1956.

Following Watson’s death, Sunnyside passed to his daughters Louise Montague Watson and Margaret Josephine Watson. Margaret Josephine Watson was a prominent journalist and historian in her right, having authored Greenwood County Sketches-Old Roads and Early Families.

Although Margaret Watson would live until 1979 and Louise Watson until 1986, the Watson family sold the house in 1974. William James Dean and his wife, who purchased it from the Watsons, restored the structure.

(Top: Sunnyside, in Greenwood, SC.)

Ignore conflict, these shiny stones will catch your attention

And newspapers wonder why an increasing number of readers (and former readers) view them with incredulity.

Eleven of the top 12 stories in the online version of my local paper are eclipse related, the astronomical event that area media has been hyping for months. Everything from improving your eclipse glasses to a list of where to find the best eclipse-related food.

A complete solar eclipse is impressive, but this seems over the top. One might even get the impression that not much else was going on elsewhere in the state, nation or world. Kind of how ancient people used to react when they thought an eclipse presaged the world’s end, but with a more mindless twist.

Actually, there are a few other things of note taking place around the globe. Such as:

  • President Trump will address the country tonight and outline a new strategy for Afghanistan, the longest war in US history;
  • The death toll from last week’s militant Islamist attack in Spain, which appear to be striking Europe with startling regularity, is now at 15; and
  • Aggrieved demonstrators, while not done training their sites on all things Confederate, converged on a bust of Christopher Columbus in Detroit and demanded the monument come down as they protest against white supremacy and the nation continues to be roiled by racial tension.

But here, local ink-stained wretches gleefully slap story after story about the eclipse on page 1 and the Internet, eager first and foremost to sell as many papers as possible. Informing readers is somewhere further down the line of priorities.

The Roman poet Juvenal knew of what he wrote more than 2,000 years ago:

“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”

(Top: Image showing online front page of local daily newspaper, showing 11 of top 12 news headlines devoted to today’s eclipse.)

Reveling in the timeless joy of newspaper corrections

Having spent nearly 20 years in journalism all told, I saw plenty of unintentional errors show up in print, some by my own hand and others by friends and co-workers.

Given that thousands and thousands of bits of information appear in even the smallest daily newspapers, mistakes and subsequent corrections are a regular companion of journalists everywhere. Occasionally, they offer a bit of levity.

Most corrections, or their cousin, the clarification, are pretty straightforward, with the goal being to mend the mistake without repeating the error unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Sometimes, however, corrections are necessarily hilarious.

Consider this from the Oct. 30, 2014, edition of the New York Times, which came in the form of a letter to the editor:

To the Editor:

I was grateful to see my book “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage” mentioned in Paperback Row (Oct. 19). When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilizing second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.

Ann Patchett

Nashville

There’s also the unintentionally funny – although one is certain the reporter and editor didn’t get much of a chuckle out of having to put together the following, which appeared in the April 11, 1996, edition of the Spokane Spokesman-Review:

An April 5 story stated that Mary Fraijo did not return a reporter’s calls seeking comment. Fraijo died last December.

And then there are those corrections which leave one scratching one’s head as to how they could possibly have come about. Thus, we have, from the May 10, 2016, The New York Times, this:

Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about a theological battle being fought by Muslim imams and scholars in the West against the Islamic State misstated the Snapchat handle used by Suhaib Webb, one of Muslim leaders speaking out. It is imamsuhaibwebb, not Pimpin4Paradise786.

The number “786” appears to have some importance to some Muslims, at least on the Indian subcontinent; something about giving numeric values to the Arabic letters of the opening words of the Koran. However, it is not a widely held belief among Muslims.

Even so, one would think that given the overall conservative nature of most Muslim leaders, the handle “Pimpin4Paradise” would be viewed as a red flag – a bright, flaming- red flag.

One could see “Pimpin4Paradise786” maybe getting by, say, the editors at the local Peterborough Prattler, but the New York Times? Oy!

Intrepid reporter: Avoid floating masses of fire ants

One would think that if a large newspaper company were going to rewrite press releases sent to them – rather than going out and finding news stories – it could do so in an intelligent manner.

A reporter for al.com, which is the website for several publications, including Alabama newspapers the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, apparently decided the recent arrival of Tropical Storm Cindy, with its potential for flooding, would be a good opportunity to rewrite a release from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System on the dangers of fire ants.

Fire ants, of course, aren’t daunted by flooding, as they ball together by the thousands during floods, making small rafts that enable them to survive for considerable periods until they find dry land.

According to the al.com story, “If a person encounters one of these floating balls of fire ants, it can be seriously bad news, causing potentially serious health problems not to mention many painful bites.”

Anyone living in the South who isn’t aware that a floating mass of fire ants is bad news either just stepped off the plane from an Inuit enclave in northern Canada or has serious short- and long-term memory issues.

And it isn’t the bite of fire ants that is so much bothersome as the other end of the critter; the fire ant has a sharp stinger on its rear, connected to an internal venom sac.

Among advice al.com included, directly quoting the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service release, was the following:

During times of flooding, avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants; and if you are in a rowboat, do not touch the ants with oars.

It’s understood that newspapers cater to a sixth-grade reading level, but even in sixth grade, when I happened to live along the Mississippi River, I knew you didn’t mess with fire ants, never mind a floating mass of the pernicious devils.

To be told to avoid contact with floating masses of fire ants is akin to being instructed not to stare directly into the sun with a pair of high-powered binoculars.

If all this seems nitpicky, remember that the fire ant that today has spread throughout the Southern US, the Southwestern US and California, came into the United States through the port of Mobile in the 1930s. One would expect a story from a site representing in part the Mobile Press-Register to have a pretty good understanding of the facts regarding this invasive and painful nuisance.

(Top: Fire ants grouped together floating on water.)

‘Fake news’ often more enticing, entertaining than reality

There has been significant discussion recently regarding “fake news.” Much of what is being touted as fake news would, in the past, simply have been labeled as the propaganda it is. On the other hand, some so-called fake news is simply mistaken reporting. Neither are new trends.

Take the latter: 95 years ago newspapers across the Carolinas ran a story detailing how workers toiling in a rural Saluda County church cemetery on July 2, 1922, had uncovered a macabre secret:

Grave diggers, while digging a grave at Dry Creek church, dug into a grave that seemed to have been dug in the wrong place and unearthed a skeleton, finding a rope around the neck with a large knot in the rope under the right ear. The condition of the skeleton showed that it had apparently been buried some 50 years. Parts of the coffin remained and the plate with the words, ‘Rest in Peace,’ could easily be read. There seems to be some mystery concerning the identification of the body. The grave itself was where no grave was supposed to be, and the oldest inhabitant of the community knows nothing of anyone who had been hanged being buried in the cemetery.

While the article itself didn’t suggest it, 50 years prior to 1922 would have been during the height of Reconstruction, a turbulent period when extralegal justice was meted out on a regular basis. To uncover a skeleton in an unmarked grave with a rope around its neck would suggest someone had met with an untoward end.

Of course, few lynching victims were sent off to their eternal reward in coffins with a plate inscribed “Rest in Peace.”

Initially, the unidentified skeleton was quickly reburied, but a short time later two men decided to inspect it more closely, according to a second story, which appeared in the Edgefield Advertiser on July 12, 1922. Edgefield is about 12 miles from Dry Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.

The skeleton was discovered to be that of a woman, and the “rope” was actually a long plait of hair that “had been coiled around her head coronet fashion, after the times,” according to the Advertiser.

With time and decomposition, the hair had come detached from the scalp and slipped down around the neck, giving it the appearance of a rope, it added.

But while the first story, with its mysterious insinuations, ran in papers in both South Carolina and North Carolina, the follow-up article only appears to have been printed in the Edgefield publication.

As a result, even today the tale of the unidentified hanging victim still has credence, despite the mystery having been cleared up within a couple of weeks of its discovery.

Even today, many love a good conspiracy story; reality, though, is often much less interesting and, as a result, fails to gain the same coverage.

Digging into the numbers behind my 1,000 followers

1000-followers

This blog recently passed a milestone, logging its 1000th follower. It should be noted, however, that the landmark follower was a blogger whose site was titled Chinese Numbers, which describes itself as “Chinese, language, learn, speak, write, textbook, contract, beginner, advanced, intermediate, commercial, marketing, correspondence, characters, radicals, decomposition, business, numbers, numerals, contract.”

Blog posts on Chinese Numbers include “Read Chinese Numbers 1-10 for Fun.” How could I resist? I clicked on the post and got what appears below (I erased the link that appeared behind “more information”).

read-chinese

What fun, indeed. The exclamation points were utterly superfluous.

Also, when you click on the “about” section of the blog, used to provide background on the blog or author, it reads: “This is an example of an about page. Unlike posts, pages are better suited for more timeless content that you want to be easily accessible, like your About or Contact information. Click the Edit link to make changes to this page or add another page.” So, no one bothered to even describe what the blog was about. Sounds legitimate to me.

Apparently, my blog is popular with the Chinese self-help crowd. Follower No. 999 is a blog titled Chinese for Beginners, while No. 998 is Chinese Commercial Correspondence. And right before that is the delightfully titled The Earth of Brain, which describes itself as “Chinese, language, learn, speak, write, textbook, contract, beginner, advanced, intermediate, commercial, marketing, correspondence, characters, radicals, decomposition, business, numbers, numerals.”

Others that have begun following my blog in recent months include the usual mishmash of sites selling male enhancements products, art, photography, architectural designs, books, publishing services, etc.

These sites apparently believe there are people randomly seeking poorly maintained, poorly written blogs for odd products. I’m not sure what sort believes this is part of a solid business plan, but they’re likely the same type who approach an advertising agency and tell the firm, “I don’t know what I want, but make it ‘pop!’”

(And to the recent follower who thought up the name FoxxyMobile Investment Services Limited – I say, good luck. Points for the use of “Limited,” but where I come from anything with “foxxy,” whether it’s spelled with one “x” or two, unless it has to do with omnivorous vulpines, is a likely sign that mischief is afoot.)

On the other hand, you have the particularly focused blogs that are quite fascinating. Sharks Parasites and Zoology comes to mind, along with Crusader History and To the Sound of the Guns.

I’m certainly no expert in, for example, sharks, parasites or zoology, but find all three interesting, having caught sharks, attracted my fair share of parasites and enjoy seeing, catching and studying animals in general. I have much respect for individuals who specialize in a legitimate area of study, and are able to cogently express their knowledge and interests in words the average person can grasp.

There are also a handful of high-quality writers out there who are able to touch on a wide range of topics.

Waldo Lydecker’s Journal, a North Carolina blogger who succinctly writes on a variety of political and social issues, An Sionnach Fionn, who describes his site as “Irish Republican news and opinion” but is so much more, The Venomous Bead, who describes her blog as “themeless” but writes with both knowledge and wisdom on myriad topics, and roughseasinthemed, a Brit who lives in Gibraltar and Spain, and adroitly mixes common sense with a desire for justness, all come to mind.

Unfortunately, for every one of the above, all of which I have followed for some time, there are at least 50 blogs set up solely to sell merchandise or services, push spam or for simple self-aggrandizement.

I equate the above 1,000 figure, as compared to the actual number of legitimate bloggers who follow this blog, to an idea I would sometimes espouse when I was a journalist. There is an old theory that if an infinite number of monkeys were left to bang on an infinite number of typewriters, sooner or later they would accidentally reproduce the works of Shakespeare. When I occasionally turned out a particularly pathetic bit of prose as a reporter, I would turn to one of my co-workers and say, “Three monkeys, 10 minutes.”

In other words, of the 1,000 followers listed for this blog, it’s likely at least half are nothing more than shills for products, services or worse.

That said, to those of you who have taken the time to read this blog since it began eight years ago, you have my thanks.

I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to deliberate with you who have both agreed and disagreed with me, and on more than one occasion I have been forced to rethink my position(s). I’d like to think I’m a better writer and a better person for having embarked on this enterprise.