In 1914, Missouri journalist Walter Williams penned The Journalist’s Creed, ethical commandments every journalist should live by. It claims that “accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism” and “a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true”.
It also says: “Suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.”
But in a time where “fake news” is at the forefront of American politics, it makes sense to look back on journalistic integrity, the history of propaganda and the future of the mass media as America gears up for the midterm election vote in November.
This creed and more are in a new exhibition entitled The History of Fake News (and the Importance of the World’s Oldest School of Journalism), at the Boone County History & Culture Center in Columbus, Missouri, which traces the history of fake news — from sensational hoaxes to propaganda, yellow journalism, misinformation and factual errors.
“I felt like we should take advantage of this particular year to do something everyone is talking about,” said Chris Campbell, the centre’s executive director, who co-curated the exhibit with Clyde Bentley, a retired professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. “We wanted to do it in a way that reminds people that when they vote, to think about how the candidates in public office are reacting to the world of journalism and how its going to have a long-term impact on our democracy.”
From old typewriters to printing presses, photos of newsrooms and the front page of one of the world’s oldest newspapers, this exhibit is set on the grounds of where Williams founded one of the world’s first journalism schools, the Missouri School of Journalism (his creed is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the National Press Club in Washington DC).
“Half of the exhibit is devoted to the history of fake news, going back centuries, hoaxes and propaganda throughout the centuries,” said Campbell. “The second half is the antidote to fake news — truth, with proof, often black and white historical photos.”
Though the “fake news” phrase is of recent times, the manipulation of mass information has been around for centuries. The exhibit features three different kinds of fake news: error, hoax and truths deemed false. Upon entering the exhibition, the first amendment is written in scarlet red cursive script on the main wall, high up, hovering over all the historical objects.
“We are not just outlining the history of fake news with this exhibit, we are taking the opportunity during this charged political era to remind people that just because some people point to the press coverage they don’t like and call it fake news, doesn’t mean it is fake news,” said Campbell. “The first amendment is critical to our democracy. By putting it in huge print in the middle of the room, it would be the point we would be making.”
The idea for a fake news exhibit all came about this winter when Campbell and Bentley, a museum volunteer, began brainstorming for their summer exhibition schedule.
“We started talking about what was going on in the newspapers, the midterm elections and fake news,” said Campbell. “I said: ‘That’s it, we’re going to do an exhibition on the history of fake news.’ Bentley’s eyes lit up. I saw the wheels spinning and we got excited.”
The exhibit features 30 panels and 20 loaned objects, including an early 20th-century typewriter, the Underwood No 10 typewriter, a common typewriter many journalists used from the 1930s to the 1970s (today, the typewriters are in museums and some go for up to $1,700 on eBay ). One of the oldest examples of fake news in the exhibit is a reference to Greek philosopher Socrates, who is quoted on the prevalence of lies and exaggeration as a form of deceitfulness for public gain, or “falling under the spell of an orator”.
“It was a kind of warning for misinformation people would put out,” said Campbell.
Another example which strikes a chilling chord to today, is the history of the British coffeehouses from the 1600s, where locals would chat about the daily gossip and political scandals, around the same time when newspapers began.
“Charles II was so angry with the news against the royals and his own ideas for government, he tried to shut down the coffee houses to stop the spread of newspapers,” said Campbell. “Eventually nobles convinced him that wouldn’t be a good idea and he backed down and they continued.”
There are also examples of 18th-century yellow press in New York City, “where lies and hoaxes were sold so people would buy them”, said Campbell.
Some examples include animals discovered on the moon and the rediscovery of dinosaurs in an issue of the Daily Press, bearing the headline: “Dinosaurs! They are Real and the Nazis Have Them.”
There is also the example of Fairies Photographed! an early 20th-century family joke that turned into a media hoax after two young girls were photographed with cardboard cutouts of fairies, which looked real.
There are also fiction stories that turned out to be publicity stunts, like Orson Welles’ famed 1938 radio broadcast, War of the Worlds. The fictional drama which modelled the format of radio news, reported an alien invasion across the world and Martian war machines releasing poisonous gas across New York City.
“It was a hoax, but Welles saw it as fiction,” said Campbell. “He claimed innocence the next day and told the newspaper he had no idea people would take it seriously, but looking back on his work, he had a genius way of promoting himself, as soon after, he would have a film deal in Hollywood and make Citizen Kane.”
Campbell says that the centre is considering creating a series of fake news exhibits to continue after this exhibit closes in January 2019 (which may be extended).
While this particular exhibit covers the history of fake news, the future of it remains undetermined for the free press. “Anyone who doesn’t see that the free press is under threat, whatever side from the political spectrum they come from, are not paying attention,” he said. “The free press is more under attack than it ever has been in recent memory.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
The History of Fake News (and the Importance of the World’s Oldest School of Journalism) is on display at the Boone County History & Culture Center until January 2019.