Fake news isn’t new. But a proper understanding of its nature is.
This is a Thought Box essay.
Fake news isn’t new. But a proper understanding of its nature is (relatively).
Since the 2016 presidential election, the term “fake news” has proliferated. I think it is generally presented as something new that has risen to prominence on the coattails of social media, especially Facebook. I gather that the general definition of “fake news” is: arbitrary, often sensationalist, claims presented as if they were legitimate news stories. Fake news is also accompanied by the public’s general lack of interest in high-quality, insightful reporting, which requires patience, focus, and thought to digest. In this post, “the problem of fake news” means both: arbitrary sensationalist claims and the lack of interest in their opposite.
While I agree that the problem of fake news is not a good thing, I don’t think it’s new; several news outlets have all dredged up the same list of historical examples of fake news, including this one involving Benjamin Franklin. But, while I don’t think the fake news problem is either new or rare, I think proper analyses of why it exists, and what allows it to exist, are.
The best analysis of the nature and origination of the problem of fake news that I have encountered to date is in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, originally published in 1943. One of the primary characters, Gail Wynand, is a newspaper tycoon. He owns a massive media conglomerate, which includes his newspaper The New York Banner. The expository passage below shows when and how Wynand first determined what would easily sell newspapers, and what he needed to appeal to within humankind to do so.
I could write an in-depth analysis of the passage, but I see no need. Even outside the context of The Fountainhead, I think this passage stands for itself in brilliant fashion:
The first campaign of [The New York] Banner was an appeal for money for a charitable cause. Displayed side by side, with an equal amount of space, the Banner ran two stories: one about a struggling young scientist, starving in a garret, working on a great invention; the other about a chambermaid, the sweetheart of an executed murderer, awaiting the birth of her illegitimate child. One story was illustrated with scientific diagrams; the other—with the picture of a loose-mouthed girl wearing a tragic expression and disarranged clothes. The Banner asked its readers to help both these unfortunates. It received nine dollars and forty-five cents for the young scientist; it received one thousand and seventy-seven dollars for the unwed mother. Gail Wynand called a meeting of his staff. He put down on the table the paper carrying both stories and the money collected for both funds. “Is there anyone here who doesn’t understand?” he asked. No one answered. He said: “Now you all know the kind of paper the Banner is to be.”
The publishers of his time took pride in stamping their individual personalities upon their newspapers. Gail Wynand delivered his paper, body and soul, to the mob. The Banner assumed the appearance of a circus poster in body, of a circus performance in soul. It accepted the same goal—to stun, to amuse and to collect admission. It bore the imprint, not of one, but of a million men. “Men differ in their virtues, if any,” said Gail Wynand, explaining his policy, “but they are alike in their vices.” He added, looking straight into the questioner’s eyes: “I am serving that which exists on this earth in greatest quantity. I am representing the majority—surely an act of virtue?”
The public asked for crime, scandal and sentiment. Gail Wynand provided it. He gave people what they wanted, plus a justification for indulging the tastes of which they had been ashamed. The Banner presented murder, arson, rape, corruption—with an appropriate moral against each. There were three columns of details to one stick of moral. “If you make people perform a noble duty, it bores them,” said Wynand. “If you make them indulge themselves, it shames them. But combine the two—and you’ve got them.” He ran stories about fallen girls, society divorces, foundling asylums, red-light districts, charity hospitals. “Sex first,” said Wynand. “Tears second. Make them itch and make them cry—and you’ve got them.”
The Banner led great, brave crusades—on issues that had no opposition. It exposed politicians—one step ahead of the Grand Jury; it attacked monopolies—in the name of the downtrodden; it mocked the rich and the successful—in the manner of those who could never be either. It overstressed the glamour of society—and presented society news with a subtle sneer. This gave the man on the street two satisfactions: that of entering illustrious drawing rooms and that of not wiping his feet on the threshold.
The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers’ brain power. Its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and oversimplified text hit the senses and entered men’s consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion.
“News,” Gail Wynand told his staff, “is that which will create the greatest excitement among the greatest number. The thing that will knock them silly. The sillier the better, provided there’s enough of them.”
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
25th Anniversary Edition, paperback