There’s Nothing New About Fake News

Review: W. Joseph Campbell, 'Getting It Wrong'

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You’ve seen or heard the famous passage from Edmund Burke, of course. How could you not? "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"—and what a line it is. So balanced and Burkean. So pithy and wise. So applicable to any moment when people on our side (obviously the good guys) seem divided and ambivalent while folk on the other side (a.k.a. the bad guys) pursue their nefarious schemes unhindered. The line is so good, it seems almost petty to point out that Edmund Burke never actually said it.

For nearly twenty years, the Weekly Standard editor Richard Starr has been fighting the lonely battle to teach us that Burke didn’t say "The only thing necessary, etc." For that matter, William Safire spent the prior twenty years insisting that the line was misattributed. And you can measure their success by the fact that Don Willett—the all-time social-media champion, among Texas Supreme Court justices—used the anniversary of Burke’s birth this January to tweet to his thousands of followers "The only thing necessary for the triumph . . . " and so on.

Five minutes on the internet would show you that the line isn’t Burke’s. Unfortunately, one minute on the internet would make you believe that it is Burke’s. And in that four-minute gap, vast schools of misinformation swarm and breed.

The computer revolution has certainly helped spread misinformation, but that technological acceleration of the problem is too well known to excite anyone anymore. As a comic meme with thousands of repostings runs: "‘Don’t believe everything you read on the internet’—Abraham Lincoln." But an analysis of why some mistakes and misquotations succeed would give a little insight into the avalanche of talk about fake news we’ve suffered in the months since the November presidential election.

Just in time for that election, the American University communications professor W. Joseph Campbell published a new and revised edition of his book Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism. And one lesson to take away from the book is that fake news, misattributions, and false memes have existed as long as news has been reported.

No, for example, Orson Welles didn’t create a nationwide panic in 1938 by broadcasting his radio play version of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. It’s a myth, as Campbell shows in Getting It Wrong—and an especially ironic one. The only reason anyone ever told the story of that radio broadcast is that it seems archetypal and iconic: an image for our sense that people are gullible, easily persuaded to believe in the reality of what they hear. Which of course is true, if we shift the frame a little bit. The fact that people are gullible is proved by their willingness to believe the false story that Orson Welles’s radio show proved how gullible people are.

Campbell takes up many other things we think we know: the origins and meaning of the famous "Napalm Girl" photograph from Vietnam, for example, and the ways the internet drives bogus quotations. He is particularly interested, however, in the things that journalists use to tell stories about themselves, which unsurprisingly often prove to be images for journalistic self-congratulation. It’s a myth that that Edward R. Murrow’s journalism destroyed the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy, for example. A myth that Walter Cronkite’s report on the Tet Offensive caused President Johnson to say, "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America." A myth that reporting from Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post brought down President Nixon. A myth that Nixon won the 1960 debates when heard on radio but lost the same debates to Kennedy when they were watched on television.

Along the way, Campbell debunks the "crack baby epidemic" of the 1980s and the bra-burning of the 1970s. The media’s declaring that Private Jessica Lynch was a war hero in Iraq doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, and the reporting on Hurricane Katrina—a 2005 tale of panic, rape, and murder—turns out to be as false as any journalism in the past hundred years. (Campbell blames the fake Katrina news on the lack of questioning about where officials were getting their information, a real lack of firsthand reporting, and a prior belief in negative stereotypes about both violent Blacks and the Southern racists who wouldn’t help them.)

But the most interesting of Campbell’s subjects in this second edition—the most telling in our current climate of fake news—are the myths that are used to tell us how gullible and susceptible to influence the American people are: the Orson Welles radio broadcast, of course, but also William Randolph Hearst’s line to one of his news artists in Cuba, "You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war." Hearst wouldn’t have said it, given his political ambitions, and he didn’t say it. The line is a myth born of the sense that someone in his position ought to have said something like that—because Americans of the time were clearly prone to being bamboozled by powerful media barons.

Campbell gives several signs of likely myth-making in Getting It Wrong, especially variation in phrasings of the supposed quotation at the heart of the iconic incident. "Version variability," he writes, "signals implausibility. It is a marker of a media-driven myth." But not all myths fit neatly into the frame of American journalistic false beliefs. The greatest moral panic of the past fifty years was the fantasy that Satanic daycare centers were sexually abusing preschool children in the 1980s and early 1990s, and though it was reported, and reported badly, the press at least tended to a slight skepticism that was completely lacking among the prosecutors and police who pursued the supposed perpetrators.

This second edition of Getting It Wrong includes chapters of new subjects not in the 2010 first edition, but through both the old and the new material runs a theme of a kind of meta-susceptibility. We gullibly believe the stories that fit our prior beliefs, and one of our key prior beliefs is the idea that people are gullible. It was true back in the run-up to the Spanish-American War in the 1890s, and was true during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it’s true now with the tropes about fake news. We look to the stories about fake news as a terrible American problem because we already believe that, well, fake news is a problem. Americans are just too foolish to sort out the true from the false, the plausible from the implausible, the right from the wrong. They are, to coin a phrase, too poor, uneducated, and easy to command.

And maybe so. Maybe we need a Facebook censor to sort out the masquerading news from the false stuff. The only thing necessary for the triumph of fake news is for good news to do nothing. But we can discern patterns to the myths laid out in W. Joseph Campbell’s Getting It Wrong—and those patterns suggest that the moral panic over fake news is itself an example of what happens when we have fake news.