From Alexander Woollcott to “Fake News”

Where does today’s ‘fake news’ come from?

There is no simple answer, but part of it can be traced to the development of journalistic practices and ethics over the course of the 20th century, strictures that the purveyors of ‘fake news’ turn on their heads thanks to technological innovations giving them the ability to make their publications look like real news venues for very little money.

Though ‘fake news’ is as old as journalism itself, the seeds of today’s proliferation of it can be found in the maturing process of American journalism than began in the wake of Yellow Journalism and that culminated in the development of ‘fact checking’ at The New York Times sometime before World War I that reached its highest mark at The New Yorker, beginning in the mid-1920s.

During the First World War, the majority of the American soldiers (the doughboys) got their news from The Stars and Stripes, the doughboy-run newspaper the Army operated out of a newsroom in Paris. The paper was biased and the coverage slanted; over the century (almost) since its first run, it has been held up as overly exuberant and way too sentimental by contemporary standards. At the same time (and this often goes unrecognized), it presented excellent writing and first-rate journalism, providing a breadth of war coverage unseen in American journalism up to that point. In fact, for all its faults, The Stars and Stripes could be argued as having invented modern war journalism. Nothing like it, certainly, had been seen before.

It was also, in a strange way, one of the sparks that lit the fire of fact-checking as a cornerstone of ‘legitimate’ journalism, as one of the most effective (let alone useful) methods of gatekeeping.

But that spark has also led, in part and rather ironically, to the rise of ‘fake news’ a century later.

The staff of The Stars and Stripes, drawn from American military organizations throughout the ‘Service of Supply’ in France, included talented journalists from all over the United States, including one rotund soldier who had left a comfortable position as drama critic for The New York Times to serve in military hospitals. Sergeant Alexander Woollcott was one of the first people whisked from his post back to Paris to help start the new soldiers’ paper. Another was an itinerant reporter originally from Colorado named Harold Ross. With Ross as unofficial managing editor and Woollcott soon reporting from the front itself, the two started a contentious relationship that would last for much of the next twenty years and that would have a tremendous impact on American journalism.

Woollcott, though a good reporter, also tended to embellish. To make matters worse, he adored the doughboys he covered during the war—and it shows in the stories he wrote. Ross, who had to oversee the editing of Woollcott’s work, certainly restrained his fulsome reporter—but a lot of Woollcott’s sentimental claptrap got through.

That’s not surprising. After all, the paper had a partisan purpose making its duties two-fold: First, it reported the news. Second, it supported the soldiers, providing constant morale boosts that helped keep up the spirits of soldiers engaged in a difficult and dangerous endeavor. It was never expected to do anything else.

Objective journalism it was not; good journalism it certainly was. Reading The Stars and Stripes today, one gets a sense of the breadth and complexity of the American contribution to the war through a collection of stories of background, breaking news, human interest, humor, pathos and much more. Furthermore, the experience is enjoyable—though the topic certainly is not. The doughboys loved it.

A brilliant raconteur, Woollcott, after the war, went on to a career in magazines and then in radio, becoming one of the best-known media personalities in America over the decade before the Second World War. He even became the inspiration for a hit play and movie, The Man Who Came to Dinner.

In the meantime, his Stars and Stripes colleague Ross had also moved on. In 1925, he founded the magazine that would become his crowning achievement, The New Yorker. He kept his association with Woollcott, even sharing a house for a time and including him as an Advisory Editor even before convincing him to write regularly for the magazine, which he did, creating the memorable “Shouts and Murmurs” column among many other contributions (particularly profiles of famous people).

In his biography of Woolcott (A. Woollcott: His Life and His World, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945), Samuel Hopkins Adams, a journalist who knew both men fairly well, describes Ross’s editorial style:

His salient characteristic was a passion for facts. The slightest doubt on any point, however unimportant, roused him  to marginal inquiry, often profane. He always numbered these comments and expected of his writers satisfactory replies corresponding to the numerals. On one three-part series, his final notation was numbered 147. This was approximately a question to every three sentences.

Out of this grew The New Yorker’s storied fact-checking process, one that continues to influence magazine reporting and that has even had an impact on how newspapers edit their stories today.

Ross did not edit Woollcott’s contributions himself, handing that thankless task over to one of the magaine’s senior editors, Katharine White, wife of writer E. B. White. After all:

Between Ross, with his sleuth-hound nose for facts and Woollcott, with his airy insensibility to such minor considerations, friction was bound to arise. One page particle brought eighteen factual queries from the editor, many of which the author could not satisfy without further research, which he was loath to incur.

That, it seems, was putting it lightly. Woollcott ‘resigned’ from The New Yorker frequently and an eventual split with Ross was never reconciled before Woollcotts untimely death in 1943.

Though Ross was a stickler for facts, they had not yet reached the level of importance in American journalism that would in the post-WWII era (in part thanks to Ross’s influence). The process had begun, however, during his days as a young reporter before WWI, The New York Times earning the sobriquet ‘newspaper of record’ partially because of its scrupulousness concerning the ‘facts’ it reported.

By the dawn of the digital age, the idea of dedicated fact-checking had seeped into the marrow of the bones of American journalism of all types. A new generation of writers, however, began to appear, people who saw that they could bypass the tedious fact-checking of the older era, publishing directly themselves and revising, if necessary, after the fact. This has proven a great and needed freedom. With it (as with all freedoms) has come danger.

In the meantime, the whole idea of a ‘fact’ had been brought into question by the ‘New Journalists’ of the 1960s and 1970s. The term arises from Tom Wolfe, and writers associated with it include Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer and more—many of whom would be accused, either at the time or over subsequent decades, of an inadequate attention to facts themselves. It didn’t matter: To them, it was the greater picture, or the feeling, or the sense of the moment that was of greater importance than the details, which could even be manipulated to enhance that picture. ‘Truth’ could not be found in slavish attention to ‘facts.’

The clash between writers and fact-checkers would come to a head in the first decade of the 21st century, with writers beginning to abandon venues that questioned their work too strongly. At the same time, sites like Talon News (which counted the fake journalist ‘Jeff Gannon’ as its reportorial staff) began to appear. They looked exactly like reputable news venues, something that once took a lot of effort and expense but that, in the digital environment, was increasingly easy to manufacture. These twin strains, questioning the authority of fact-checkers and cheaper avenues of publication, assured today’s proliferation of ‘fake news.’

Sometimes, reputable writers would try to have it both ways, skirting on ‘facts’ but willing to work with fact-checkers for the sake of appearing in equally reputable venues. One of these is the essayist John D’Agata, who went through a seven-year fact-checking process over “What Happens There,” a piece that finally appeared in The Believer in January, 2010. He and fact-checker Jim Fingal published their exchanges in 2012 as The Lifespan of a Fact (New York: W. W. Norton). The book presents a clash between two worldviews, one stating you build through the facts you have, keeping them inviolable. The other stating you can manipulate facts if you are doing so in pursuit of greater truths than their minutia can illuminate.

The tension between D’Agata and Fingal goes back to the fights between Ross and Woollcott, if not to similar struggles before. As long as there was something of a balance of power between the two (something allowing the fights D’Agata and Fingal chronicle to continue without eventually leading to a complete break), this can create a dynamic as powerful as that shown in the writings of the New Journalists. When one side can ignore the other, however, disaster easily strikes. ‘News’ disappears; the appearance of ‘news’ replaces it.

Today, with the subject of ‘fake news’ more dominant than it has been since George Bush pointed to ‘Gannon’ (whose real names was James Guckert) during a press briefing and said, “Go ahead, Jeff,” many are trying to explain the genesis of ‘fake news’ Among these is Lee Siegel, himself a past purveyor of internet deception (he had to resign a position as a blogger for The New Republic in 2006 when it was revealed he had created ‘sock puppets’ or fake identities to engage critics in the comments sections of his posts).

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review on December 22, 2016 (“How Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert Blazed a Trail for Trump”), Siegel says, “it was [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert who helped create the atmosphere of ‘fake news’ (formerly known as gossip, rumor, dis-, or misinformation) that helped elect Trump, and that currently has the media up in arms.” He claims that, “Even as Colbert was inveighing with inventive brilliance against the blurring of fact and fantasy that he immortally dubbed ‘truthiness,’ he and Stewart were exploiting and creating an atmosphere of truthiness themselves.”

Though, as Siegel points out, both Stewart and Colbert have been treated by many as sources of news, they never presented themselves that way. Their shows were on Comedy Central and were clearly satire. As Sophia McClennen makes clear in an article for Salon, “Don’t Blame Jon Stewart for Donald Trump: Comedy Central Didn’t Make America Fall for ‘Fake News’ and ‘Post-Truth,’” on December 31, 2016, “there is a substantial difference between satirical fake news that depends on irony, critical thinking and questioning the status quo and misinforming fake news that preys on fear, bias and hysterical hyperbole.” That people can mistake satire for serious journalism has been noted since the day of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in 1729.

Though some purveyors of ‘fake news’ claim to do so simply for ‘the lulz’ (simply to throw things off balance for a chuckle), the reality of it is that political operatives have seen that there is no longer a parity between the protectors off the reputation of the venue (the fact-checkers) and the creators of copy (the writers). Gatekeeping has all but disappeared, allowing writers, should they choose to take it, opportunity to publish whatever they want and with impunity.

Woollcott, who sometimes styled himself as a great writer with nothing to say, had to work to find topics rather than creating stories out of thin air because of fact-checkers. That may have felt constraining to him, but it did keep his work within certain bounds.

The fact is that, today, those bounds have been broken (though there are certainly still plenty of publications attempting to operate within them). That, and not satire, not anything else (not wholly, at least) is why ‘fake news’ can—and does—have such an impact today.

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