Fake news is nothing new

There’s a story my family likes to tell about the only time my mother’s photo ever appeared in a national newspaper. She had been invited to the offices of the Toronto Star with several other women, where the paper had apparently set up a test kitchen. Several dishes were baked, interviews were conducted, and photos were taken of the women.

When the story ran my mother appeared in newsprint showing off her favorite pie recipe. She told everyone that it wasn’t her pie or her recipe, and that she had never baked it. I heard this story many times by the time I decided to pursue a career in journalism; I had never known or even met a reporter or newspaper editor, so I obviously chose to ignore what, even more now than then, was a prudent warning.

The Washington Post's Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about a heroine-addicted boy that did not exist.

The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a story about a heroine-addicted boy that did not exist.

The term “fake news” was being used a lot after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election last fall, mostly as a way of trying to explain how Trump could have won when every poll and columnist had confidently predicted his defeat. An outraged mainstream media insisted that fake news – obviously fabricated stories disseminated by dubious websites and linked endlessly on social media – had stealthily propagandized for Trump, and swayed voters to choose a dubious media personality over a seasoned public servant like Hillary Clinton.

Trump supporters and critics of the mainstream media – not always the same people, it must be noted – fired back that fake news was just as eagerly produced and consumed by Clinton supporters, adding that the overwhelming liberal bias of the media was the ultimate incubator of fake news, published and disseminated with the same propagandizing mission by Clinton’s many bylined supporters. And why wouldn’t they turn to websites of varying credibility, from Breitbart and The Blaze to Prison Planet and Infowars, when “reputable” news sources were so obviously in the tank for their candidate?

There was a time when “fake news” was simply known as “a lie,” but it’s a mark of an insecure and dangerous society when it needs to come up with a new word after the old one seems to have lost its meaning. In any case it’s a far more useful term in a profession where public mistrust is steadily falling – a recent Gallup poll traced public trust of the media falling to 32% from its most recent high of 55% in 1999. Simply put, if you can quarantine purveyors of “fake news” somewhere outside of the legitimate mainstream media, it’s easier to disguise the long-term problem journalism has had with fibs, fabrications, falsehoods and fabulists ever since it began.

Among journalists – or certainly the older ones – a gallery of shameful bylines are listed when each new scandal erupts. There was Jayson Blair, a New York Times reporter who stole quotes and made up sources, and Janet Cooke of the Washington Post, who won a Pulitzer prize for a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict who didn’t actually exist. Before that there was Nik Cohn, whose New York magazine feature about disco dancers in New York’s boroughs became the basis for Saturday Night Fever, but was largely fiction.

But the name that gets mentioned the most is Stephen Glass, a young journalist whose stellar career was cut short in 1998 when it was discovered that he had made up, in part or in whole, dozens of stories in magazine like The New Republic, Harper’s, George and Rolling Stone. They made a movie about him, and he ended up publishing a novel five years after his disgrace. I was once quite obsessed with Glass and his story and bought the novel as soon as it appeared in hardback, though if I’d waited I could have picked it up for a fraction of the price on the remainder tables just a few months later. (Amazon has copies for sale starting at just $3.61.)

Glass’ The Fabulist is a comic novel about a young Washington-based journalist named Stephen Glass whose life falls apart after his serial fabrications are exposed and become a brief national scandal. It’s not badly written, though it’s hard not to read The Fabulist and try to imagine that Glass was trying to salvage his reputation with an ironic second act – the book reads like source material for a screenplay, with broadly comic episodes, sexed up interludes, and a hopeful ending after a cathartic brawl in a veterinarian’s office.

Reading the book today, though, it’s hard not to pick out passages that try to explain just why Glass destroyed his own reputation and damaged that of his profession, beginning with his description of the sort of articles he wrote for The Washington Weekly – the novel’s very thinly disguised stand-in for The New Republic:

“The Weekly had basically invented what became the dominant magazine journalism voice of the 1990s: the Ironic-Contrarian. Weekly pieces were attack pieces – but not angry, predictable polemics such as you might find in The Nation or National Review. They were sophisticated, low-key takedowns, all the more devastating because they used the source’s own words to hang him: It was assisted suicide, not murder. The journalist’s voice was cool, calm, even cold – at most, he or she might add the one-word sentence ‘Indeed’ as if rolling up the noose for future use.”

As Glass puts it, the pressure to provide these sorts of stories, right down to the devastating takedown quote, was such that young writers like himself felt their careers were on the line if they didn’t deliver. Some might work harder, or simply give up with the realization that life doesn’t often provide such neat narrative devices. Others, such as Glass, try to game the fact-checking system – far more rigorous then than it is today after endless cycles of newsroom lay-offs – and submit fabricated quotes and even people to appreciative editors and readers grateful that their own prejudices have been confirmed.

Nearly 20 years later the sorts of articles that Glass describes sound as quaint as the dense, pompous, and prolix prose in a hundred-year-old newspaper editorial. We’ve moved on to the listicle and the catalogue of Twitter reactions, and the triumphant transcription of an incriminating Facebook update salvaged before the subject could delete their account.

Buzzfeed – a media entity the editors of The New Republic couldn’t have imagined when they fought to salvage their magazine’s reputation in the wake of the Glass scandal – recently proclaimed the need for “new rules” in covering the Trump administration. The media should embrace the chaos of the contemporary news landscape, their editor Ben Smith wrote in the New York Times, and abandon any pretense of “purity and incorruptibility.” Rumours and uncorroborated documents such as the dossier of evidence of Russian ties to the Trump campaign (rejected for publication by traditional media outlets, but published by Buzzfeed just before the election) should be printed “in a transparent way that informs our users of its provenance, its impact and why we trust it or distrust it.”

If Smith prevails – and there’s no reason to imagine he won’t – then Stephen Glass will one day be seen as less of a blot on his profession and more of an innovator born before his time. As for myself, I can’t help but wonder at this late stage in life if I might not have chosen a profession with a better reputation, like a process server or a repo man.

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