The story of fake news from George Washington to Donald Trump
That is the difference between today and the founding generation. Eighteenth-century readers and news consumers understood that their subscriptions were extremely partial. Many Americans today are unable to tell the difference.
In January 2017, then-President Trump called CNN “fake news” and the term quickly became synonymous with his administration’s insincere attacks on the media. The widening party divide over the past four years has only exacerbated the spread of misinformation and malicious attacks on media organizations. Although disinformation is widespread and poses a dangerous threat to the health of our republic, this problem is not new. Since the beginning of the nation, presidents have grappled with fake news. The only difference is that bad actors have many more tools at their disposal today.
As factional differences solidified during George Washington’s first term as president, opposition newspapers began to print criticism that grew in volume during his second term. He regularly complained to friends and colleagues about the treatment of the newspapers, especially when the newspapers were pure lies.
During the Revolution, British forces forged letters from Washington claiming the war was a mistake. The letters reappeared towards the end of his presidency. Washington’s enemies claimed the correspondence was taken from William Lee, Washington’s enslaved valet, when Lee was captured by the British. There was only one problem – Lee never left Washington during the war. While Washington ignored the letters in the 1770s, two decades later he could not be silent. He wrote a fact-checking letter and asked Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to put it in the State Department archives.
But facts and evidence couldn’t stop his opponents, and opposition newspapers kept their troubles going during the 1796 elections. After John Adams was elected, editors reluctantly admitted that because Washington was a killer, John Adams would be better than his predecessor. Washington was a lot, but murder probably wasn’t one of them.
The pro-government federal newspapers weren’t much better. During the presidential campaign in 1800, they warned readers not to bury their Bibles. If Thomas Jefferson won, they continued, he would wage a war on religion and confiscate their treasured family ties. Jefferson had no such plans and his election did not start a war on Christianity.
In May, other elections in the United States’ early decades were plagued by false accusations. In 1828, followers of John Quincy Adams spread rumors that Rachel Jackson was a woman of bad repute. Rachel died of a heart attack just before Andrew Jackson moved into the White House. Believing the rumors drove them to an early grave, he never forgave his enemies.
While presidents of all political stripes were annoyed by the fake news, nobody was surprised by the vitriol printed in the newspapers. Readers understood which newspapers were pro-federal, which were pro-republican, and which were more neutral. For example, in 1796, when President Washington was preparing his farewell address, President Washington specifically chose Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser because he avoided the political excesses of the Aurora General Advertiser or the Gazette of the United States. He wanted the message to be as neutral as possible and chose the location accordingly.
The role of the press in presidential elections began to develop in the late 19th century with the emergence of a journalistic ethos that valued the pursuit of truth and professionalism in reporting. Universities created journalism programs to teach standards and best practices, and journalism achieved prestigious career status.
These shifts resulted in groundbreaking reports of corruption, crime, scandals, and more. For example, the “Muckrakers” were a group of serious journalists who published books and magazine articles about the conditions of coal mines, political corruption, trusts and monopolies, the meat packing industry, race riots, and more. Her compelling articles led to many reforms during the progressive era, including regulations on trusts, pollution, working conditions, and food and product safety.
Other famous examples of professional journalism include the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the extent of President Lyndon Johnson’s lies and misinformation about the war in Vietnam, and the investigation into the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Presidents, however, have not always been pleased when enterprising journalists unearthed harmful information about their activities. President Nixon despised the press, threatened lawsuits if a newspaper printed “Tricky Dick,” and reportedly said to his adviser Henry Kissinger, “Remember, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy … cover that 100 times the whiteboard.”
On the other hand, some journalists protected presidents from scandals. The press has notoriously turned a blind eye to John F. Kennedy’s public servants, and reporters seldom mentioned that Franklin D. Roosevelt was mostly confined to a wheelchair.
President Trump therefore served as a break with presidential tradition. Unlike previous presidents, who reluctantly accepted the role of investigative journalism, Trump regularly accused mainstream media of spreading fake news while serving as one of the most prolific creators of disinformation along with his supporters. This information is then reinforced by its allies and international actors who hope to capitalize on the chaos in the United States.
Trump’s disinformation efforts were successful for two reasons: Fox News and social media. First, Fox News was the first news channel in decades to deliberately pursue a political agenda. While viewers may have perceived political bias when reporting on national news networks such as NBC, CBS or CNN, Fox was the first to design its content in such a way that it supported a political party from top to bottom.
Second, the rise of social media took advantage of non-media literate users to distinguish truth from disinformation or misinformation. Many older users expected social media sites to follow the same guidelines and practices used by the traditional news sources they grew up with. When social media, especially Facebook, accelerated the spread of misinformation, these viewers were unable to tell the difference. They believed they could trust the publication. You can not.