A Brief History of Dishonest Journalists


Fake news has become a newsworthy and controversial phrase in the past few years. Recently it’s been used by politicians to berate political opponents, but the original meaning of the phrase is something quite different, although often just as politically charged.

Until very recently, fake news referred to fabricated journalism that was billed as the real deal. This doesn’t refer to satirical stories, such as those found on The Onion and The Babylon Bee, but to pieces derived from the imagination of their author, with little to no basis in reality, that are non-humorously presented to the public as truth.

In the newspapers of the past, fake news could spread unchecked. Its roots stretch as far back as the thirteenth century BCE, when Ramses the Great spread pamphlets proclaiming that his forces had won a battle that actually ended in stalemate, but it didn’t really start spreading like wildfire until the first decades of the twentieth.

Fake news was then known as yellow journalism, and at the time it was often used as a form of propaganda. During the First World War, for example, British newspapers circulated numerous fabricated stories accusing the German government of committing war crimes and other atrocities. (Twenty years later, this would demonstrate the dangers of fake news when Joseph Goebbels, a close associate of Adolf Hitler and one of history’s most famous anti semitists, used these hoaxes as support for his claims that rumors of a holocaust in Nazi Germany were false.)

Because modern technology has made fact checking easier than ever, fake news has grown increasingly rare in contemporary newspapers. Elsewhere, however, it’s enjoyed something of a renaissance. From day one, the worldwide web has teamed with conspiracy theory forums, propaganda sites, and blogs that spread fake news to attract readers, and tabloid papers (otherwise known as “gossip magazines”) continue to slap sensationalized headlines on questionably sourced rumors and sell them beside the candy in grocery stores.

And do I even need to mention social media?

Already, this newest incarnation of fake news has proven dangerous. During the 2016 election, a conspiracy theory stating that Hillary Clinton was being investigated for crimes related to human trafficking circulated on Facebook and Twitter. Several fake news sites, including Infowars, picked the story up, spreading its influence even more widely, and as it spread, it became more and more exaggerated. At its peak, the original conspiracy theory evolved into baseless allegations that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats were abusing children and performing satanic rituals in the basement of a DC pizza shop. It became known as “Pizzagate”.

A specific restaurant known as Comet Ping Pong became associated with Pizzagate. The owners and staff received multiple death threats, and on December fourth, 2016, a man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong and raided the building with an AR-15 at his side. Thankfully, no one was injured.

The moral of the story? Well, journalists, wannabe journalists, and even Twitter celebrities must understand that lying to the general public is dangerous, because there’s always someone out there who will believe it. And the general public must understand that sensational claims should never be taken for fact unless they come from a reputable source and unless they can be concretely proven, because not everyone who claims to be a journalist is honest.