The notion of “fake news” is certainly a hot topic of the day. Donald Trump, nigh on a daily basis, denounces the fiction popular media broadcasts.
This is not new.
Multiple newspapers existed throughout this country’s founding created for the sole purpose of advancing a specific political agenda. Personal slander of opposing public figures was routine.
In an 1807 letter to James Norvell, Thomas Jefferson discussed his contemporary press.
To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers.
In today’s terms, “such a cable channel would find few viewers.”
It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly [sic] deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s [sic] abandoned prostitution to falsehood.
I love Jefferson’s metaphor. His contemporary press has prostituted itself to lies. It pimps itself out for profit or a perceived political advantage. Truth neither pays the bills nor gets anyone elected. To quote David Byrne, “Same as it ever was.”
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
I see this phenomenon almost daily. A partisan news source can print an obvious fact, like “the sun will set set in the west today.” Yet the comment section is filled with rejoinders akin to “Pshaw! That source is absurdly partisan! Only an idiot would believe it!”
While allowing for a degree of hyperbole, Jefferson is all too accurate here:
I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.
Donald Trump’s cries of “FAKE NEWS!” are merely a less articulate way of expressing a truth readily acknowledged by Jefferson over two centuries ago.