I’m going down to Florence…

A couple of years ago my Dear Wife and I drove 350 miles or so up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to see Rosanne Cash and her band play one of the most sublime shows either of us has ever seen.  For the first set she played her album about the American South, The River and the Thread, start to finish, complete with stories about the history of each song. (Note – If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to the album through their streaming service.

The album opens with one of my favorites – “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” The song starts this way:

I’m going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I’ll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head

National Park Stamps from Tupelo, MIssissippi and Florence, Alabama

National Park Stamps

When I decided to head to the South this year for my annual motorcycle trip with the Biker Bishop, I knew I had to make a stop in Florence.  One of the things I do on motorcycle trips is collect National Park Passport Stamps.  When I did my last round of stamp collecting about four years ago, I got to Tupelo, but didn’t make it to Florence.  So this year I had to get there.

As I came in from the West, I really entered the South in Mississippi, hooking up with the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis. For those of you not familiar with it, the Natchez Trace is a roughly 400 mile long national park controlled access road that meanders through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, running from Natchez to Nashville. Riding a motorcycle up that road puts a person in a musical frame of mind.

There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past
The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast

I took the Trace from Tupelo up to the exit that leads to Florence.  But before you get to Florence, you go through Muscle Shoals.  To me, and so many of my age, Muscle Shoals means FAME Recording Studio (FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) and the incredible Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They brought such a great sense of soul to so many classic songs.  The National Park Service noticed that, too, and designated that general area of Alabama the Muscle Shows National Historic Area.  Which means that there are a host of passport stamps to be had in the area.

Alabama Chanin

Alabama Chanin

This morning I headed to the O’Neal House Museum where there was a stamp to be had.  I’m not sure whether the museum was open, but I followed the sign to the Heritage Area office and found a charming pair of  Southern ladies, Judy and Clair if I’m not mistaken, who were thrilled to give me the stamp.  I mentioned that Rosanne’s song was what sent me there.  And at that Judy really lit up.  She said, “You know that place she sings in about in A Feather’s Not a Bird, well they have a stamp! You have to go there.” And unfortunately my writing doesn’t capture her lovely Alabama accent. (And no, all southern accents are not the same.)

So that set me off to Alabama Chanin, where they maintain the art of southern quilt sewing, but apply it to making clothes.  Judy said that the duster Rosanne wore during the show DW and I saw was likely made there. The shop, known as The Factory, was full of shirts, dresses and other items, all showing the distinctive quilt stitching.

So there’s a lesson here, that small things aren’t always the same as the bigger things they are a part of.  I was collecting stamps, and I was hoping for one from Florence, but I got something so much more. I got to meet interesting people, hear stories about one of my favorite singers, and see a place where old arts are being used in new ways.

A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me.

 

 

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Guest Blog Post: The Nintendo Switch – Buying a $300 Console Based on Media Alone

The following is a guest blog post by my colleague Aaron Blackman, who in addition to being a forensics coach and comm lecturer is also a big fan of video and tabletop games. 

Aaron Blackman and his SwitchE3 2017 just recently wrapped up, and after watching all of the major press conferences highlighting the future in gaming, both distant and near, I feel that Nintendo had the strongest showing. After a brief 25 minute spotlight focusing on the recently released Nintendo Switch, I’m thrilled about the future of my latest gaming console. I was able to buy a Nintendo Switch on launch day and I absolutely love the console. At the same time, this was one of the weirdest consumer choices that I have made in my life.

Let me explain.

On October 20th, 2016 Nintendo released their first trailer of their upcoming console. Before this, the codename for the system was the “Nintendo NX”. Despite being thoroughly confused by the name “Nintendo Switch”, this short trailer hooked my attention in a way that only Nintendo could: by attempting something unique. Nintendo’s newest console would be a hybrid, a portable gaming machine that you can hold in your hands and play on an airplane or during your commute, but also easily dock it into your TV when you returned home.

For context, the company’s consoles have been technically inferior for a long time now, but when Nintendo gets an idea and actually runs with it, they find massive success. For example, the portable Nintendo DS sold nearly 154 million units according to IGN. The DS’s success was based on numerous factors: a phenomenal library of games, sleek design as well as two screens for both standard gameplay and touch-based controls. Additionally, Nintendo struck gold when they originally released the Wii, a console centered around motion controls in 2006.

As Fall 2016 transitioned into Winter, many gamers were excited about the news of Nintendo returning to form and refining their creative approach to hardware development. There were many questions that still needed to be answered of course, like how long the battery would last, internal data storage and the big unknown: price.  

This anticipation built over the holidays until January 12th, 2017, which brought an hour-long live presentation from Tokyo to give details on pricing, release dates, and upcoming games. Overall, reviews of the presentation were mixed. Hopping between live talking points on stage and pre-recorded segments, the production felt clunky and oddly paced. Many of the featured games had little information available, worrying fans that the Switch’s game lineup would echo the Wii U, few and far between. Additionally, Mario’s newest adventure was nearly a year away and every accessory seemed extremely expensive. The Pro controller was priced at $70, which is $10 more than a standard Xbox One or Playstation 4 controller. Extra Joy-Con controllers (the small devices that slide onto the side of the console) would cost $50 for one or $80 for the pair. Finally, an extra dock to connect to a second TV would run you a whopping $90.

Luckily, the $299 price tag for the console and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a launch title served as an oasis of good news. I personally knew of five people who preordered the console that very night: myself, two of my brothers and two friends. As Nintendo and Zelda fanboys, we all chose to adopt the console early as a risk, but one that could be canceled if we changed our minds.

Less than a month later on February 5th, Nintendo debuted their first-ever Super Bowl ad for the Switch. It’s timing was quite conspicuous, but the effect was massive. With a catchy song and the multitude of ways to play the console, Nintendo effectively excited people about the Switch again. Any doubt that I had regarding my preordered console was washed away. After waiting over five years for a new Zelda console game, we were less than a month away.

March 3rd was an exhilarating release day, and the perfect time for me to test out the portability of the console. As the forensics coach at UNK, I was scheduled to travel with my team to Crete, NE for a speech tournament. Normally, packing up an entire gaming console is too much work and takes up too much space for a weekend trip. However, the Switch fit easily into my backpack for the two-hour drive. Connecting the dock to the hotel TV took less than a minute and suddenly, I was resuming my adventures in Hyrule.

I tested each and every mode during the opening weekend (handheld, docked and tabletop) as an experiment for levels of comfort in different gaming scenarios. I showed the Switch to numerous friends and colleagues at the tournament, letting them play and hold it for themselves. Most importantly for that weekend, I had fun.

As I mentioned before, I love my Nintendo Switch, but it was certainly a rocky road to get to this point. Purchasing a $300 gaming console without ever seeing or holding it is a gamble, forcing consumers to rely on the various media presentations that Nintendo showcased leading up to release. Their marketing strategy worked, as the console is still flying off the shelves three months later.

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Bringing Julius Caesar Into The 21st Century

There’s been a big fuss over the last week over the New York Public Theater’s version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” As you’ve no doubt heard, the play features a staging in the present day with a Caesar wearing a bright yellow wig and an overly long red tie.

In other words, the play is being staged with a very Trump-like Caesar.  And given how the play ends for the Roman emperor (Spoiler Alert: He’s assassinated), there’s been a lot of criticism  of the production. Delta Airlines and Bank of America even went so far as to remove their corporate sponsorship for the production saying: “No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values,”

The director of the play, Oskar Eustis, in a note published on line, defended the production, saying that the play does not glamorize or promote assasination:

“Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means,” Mr. Eustis wrote. “To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him.”

This is not the first time that “Julius Caesar” has been produced with an emperor who strongly resembles the sitting president.

Back in 2012, a joint production of the Acting Company and the well-regarded Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis also did a contemporary version of the play, this time featuring a a tall, slim, basketball loving black man who was an obvious reference to then President Barack Obama.

Oddly enough, there was very little mention of it in the press and no widespread criticism of it by liberals. No sponsors, including Delta Airlines, removed their sponsorship, and the American Conservative praised the production. (In fact, the Obamaesque version was forgotten enough that HBO talk show host Bill Maher was not aware that there had been such a staging.)

On a completely separate note, back in 1988 avant garde opera director Peter Sellars staged Mozart’s classic “The Marriage of Figaro” in Trump Tower with characters in modern business attire.  (This was, of course, long before Donald Trump was directly involved in politics.)

And for those of you who don’t know the story of “Figaro,” Figaro is a manservant for Count Almaviva. Figaro is about to be married to the lovely Susanna, and the Count wants to claim his feudal right, the droit du seigneur – to force Susanna spend her wedding night with him instead of her husband, Figaro.

Here’s a clip where Figaro is working on the Count’s laundry. Unfortunately, some of the audio quality is poor.  But the production was great fun when I watched it on PBS back in  1990. (I wonder whether the DVD of the opera will come back in print?)

A clip from early in the opera

And from the end.

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Listing Beatles Songs, 21st Century Movies, and Frank DeFord Stories

For some reason, lists of things have been popping up in my reading over the last several days.  Here are several worth taking a look at:

  • Beatles Songs Ranked From Worst to Best
    Vulture has put out a ranking of all 213 Beatles songs from worst to best.  And while I really don’t think the specific order means much (While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Yesterday are not in the Top 10, what’s with that?), the commentary about each song and the craft that did (or did not) go into them is terrific. Argue about the list all you want. (Please do!) But how great to give real thought to one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songbooks.
  • Quirky List of Top 25 Movies of the 21st Century
    This list comes from the New York Times, and it clearly leans to the arthouse crowd. But there’s a lot to be recommended here even to the more casual movie fan.  I thought it was interesting that two animated films made it into the Top 10 – (Anime-classic Spirited Away was #2 and Pixar’s psychological Inside Out was #7. Lots of movies on the list I was not familiar with, but I’ll now keep my eye open for them showing up on streaming. I will confess that one of my favorite parts of the article was the referral to a separate list of Six Directors Pick Their Favorite 21st Century Films.
  • Great Stories From Sportswriter Frank DeFord
    My favorite (by a long shot!) sportswriter, Frank DeFord, died at the end of May. I loved his radio commentaries for NPR, his articles for Sports Illustrated, and his novels & books. (His novel Bliss Remembered about swimmers in the 1936 Olympics still sticks with me several years after I read it.) I will be having my feature writing students this fall read him.

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Guest Blog Post: When a bomb explodes

Editor’s Note: The following blog post is from my old, old friend Dr. Chris Allen, who is a broadcast journalism professor at University of Nebraska – Omaha.  For years he’s been traveling around the world as a media scholar and to take students to destinations around the world.  Two years ago he took our youngest on a two-week study trip to Oman in the Middle East. To say it was a life-changing experience for him would be an understatement.

This spring, both of my offspring travelled together for two weeks to Europe, and while there met up with Chris in London for dinner and other merriment.  Chris was there with a group of students, as he so often has been over the years in May.

Both of my sons arrived safely back in North America yesterday afternoon, not long before the news from Manchester started breaking.  It’s been a difficult thing to know how to react to.  My wife and I are still very glad our boys took this trip and had those experiences together. But we would be lying if we didn’t admit that we were glad to have them back closer to home.  

A few minutes ago I was on Facebook and saw a link to this wonderful blog post from Chris with his reaction to yesterday’s bombing – as someone who has been through bombing on a number of occasions before, and as someone was responsible for a group of students two hours away from the bombing.

Thanks, Chris, for permission to reprint your blog post here.  And after you, dear reader, have read this, go check out his many other posts on Dr. Allen’s travels.

When a bomb explodes
By Dr. Chris Allen

I’ve been to Kabul, Afghanistan, four times in my life. The first three times a suicide bomber blew up something and took innocent lives somewhere in the city. The first time, in 2010, it happened on a road I had been on just two days earlier. But in none of those cases was the bombing anywhere near where I was. The last time I was there, last spring, there was no bombing. It had taken place the week before, killing 60 people.

Those bombings were not really close to where I was. I mean, they were in the same city, but not near where I was staying or working. I didn’t brush them off, but I realized them for what they were — targeted at a specific sector of the population,not random. I have developed an attitude toward bombings. I know I have never been involved directly in a bombing or lost anyone to one. And I realize people who have may have an entirely different attitude.

I have a group of eight college students here in London with me. We fly home Saturday. The bombing in Manchester caught our attention, the attention of the university administration, and of course the parents of my students. Manchester is at least two hours from London by train, not really in our neighborhood. But somehow it seems close. So far 22 people have died. This was also targeted — at young people attending a concert in a large auditorium. It was staged for maximum injury and maximum attention. It accomplished both.

So this morning I sat down with my students. Troupers that they are, none of them appeared to be nervous about the bombing. I gave them a chance to talk it out. I urged them to call their parents if they felt a need to — I’m sure just about everyone did. One of them said her parents were putting some pressure on her to come home, but she didn’t want to, and I offered to drop an e-mail to any of their parents they wanted me to. No one took me up on the offer.

I told them that 22 people had died. But that same day seven billion people did not die. The world sometimes seems like a dangerous place, but the truth is most of us are quite safe. And I said the same thing I say to everyone who asks about all these things: If we flee home in fear without finishing what we came here for, the terrorists win. We can’t let them win. Take precautions? Be vigilant? Absolutely. But as the British are quoted as saying, Keep Calm and Carry On.

With that said, we all stood up, walked out of the hotel to our appointment, and carried on.

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Questions Worth Asking (Maybe)

After an end of the semester break – we are back. With all new questions!

  • Is this the changing of the guard? MSNBC on top, Fox on bottom
    No probably not. But it is no longer automatic that Fox News will have the biggest audiences in cable news. Last week MSNBC won the ratings war in several of the most important categories, including prime time audience in the prized 25-54 demographic and in total viewers. It also was the second-most watched network on basic cable, falling only to TNT – which was airing NBA playoff games. Biggest reason for MSNBC’s success? Host Rachel Maddow. Who proves that you can put a Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University Political Science PhD on the air and attract a big audience of people who want smart, thoughtful analysis of the news.I don’t believe this is the end of Fox News, but it does mean that the network needs to reconsider what they are doing.  I don’t think Fox needs to abandon its conservative orientation, but perhaps it needs to reconsider its evening devotion to conspiracy theories.
  • Is Trump Really Getting Lots of Negative Coverage?
    Yup – According to Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, coverage of the Trump administration has been overwhelmingly negative. But is this “bias” (whatever that is), or is it because that’s the way the news about the Trump administration is? Interestingly enough, even the news out of Fox is more than 50 percent negative….
  • What Does C-SPAN’s Audience Look Like?
    This is usually a pretty hard question to answer, but every four years, the non-profit public affairs network takes an in-depth look at its audience. They just recently published the latest version.  Among the details? Approximately 70 million US adults watch C-SPAN at some point over a six-month period.
  • What is Apple’s most exciting new product?
    A pizza box! No, not an early Y2K pizza box shaped computer. An actual pizza box for its cafeteria that lets workers take a pizza back to their cubicles without the pizza going soggy.
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And now you know… the rest of the story

Followup to several stories we’ve been talking about here:

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news – Part 3

This is the final day of sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Jon Stewart & Daily Show

During his infamous 2004 appearance as a guest on CNN’s political debate show Crossfire, co-host Tucker Carlson tried to compare the questions Jon Stewart asked presidential candidate John Kerry on his show with those Crossfire would have asked, Stewart’s response was:

“If you want to compare your show to a comedy show, you’re more than welcome to.”

“You’re on CNN. The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.”

During liberal co-host Paul Begala’s introduction to the episode, he introduced Stewart as “the most trusted man in fake news.”

It was during this time that many Americans came to know Stewart as the king of “fake news.” But this was a different kind of fake news.  It was not made up stories designed to influence politics or draw clicks to web pages more devoted to selling advertising than presenting information. Instead, Stewart used the term to refer to his brand of satirical news that had its roots in the world of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Fake News in the era of Trump

Fake news today takes on a wide range of forms including all of those we’ve talked about so far:

Analysis and Conclusions

Christopher Lasch –Postmodernism

Of course, the problem of the media providing factual accounts is not unique to literary journalists.  Christopher Lasch, in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism, argues that in postmodern culture we are beginning to question the very existence of factuality as a significant concept:

“[T]he rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evaluation of their influence.  Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.”

What Lasch is saying is that it is not the truth or falsity of a statement that matters so much as whether people will accept it as valid.  Lasch illustrates his point with an example from the Nixon administration:

President Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, once demonstrated the political use of these techniques when he admitted that his previous statements on Watergate had become “inoperative.”  Many commentators assumed that Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied.  What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable.  Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them “inoperative.”  The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.”

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news? Part 2

Over three days I’m sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Modern Day Fabrications

Let us now jump ahead to the 1980s and 90s and see several examples of fake news fabrications done primarily to provide a boost to individuals hoping to boost their careers and publications hoping to boost their readership.

Janet Cooke and Jimmy’s World

Legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee calls the Janet Cooke story the lowest point in the history of the fabled newspaper.

 

Cooke was hired by the Washington Post to improve its coverage of the African-American community.  She was a young black woman who claimed to have a degree from Vassar, and she was a fantastic writer.  On Sunday, September 28, 1980, Cooke delivered just the kind of story she had been hired to write – a compelling account of an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy who was a heroin addict being shot up by his mother’s boyfriend.  Although the story was compelling, unfortunately it  wasn’t true–something  that was not discovered until the story was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  Days after Cooke won the award, reporters discovered that her college credentials had been fabricated, and soon she confessed that the story had been made up, too.

Fourteen years later after Cooke’s story was written, retired Post editor Ben Bradlee was still haunted by the story and by the blow it delivered to the paper’s credibility: “That was a terrible blot on our reputation.  I’d give anything to wipe that one off.”

Stephen Glass’s “too good to be true” stories

Consider the following case: A twenty-five-year-old writer named Stephen Glass had written incredible stories for the New Republic, Rolling Stone, George, and Harper’s. Other writers—some would say jealous colleagues—thought Glass’s stories, with their customary “wow” opening paragraphs that set the scene, were too good to be true. Unfortunately, they were. In 1998, Glass was caught fabricating an article for the New Republic about teenage hackers, and his subsequent firing sent shock waves throughout the magazine industry. Follow-up investigations suggested that Glass had fabricated material for dozens of articles without the magazines’ fact-checkers catching on.

Said Charles Lane, then the editor of the New Republic, “I don’t wish [Glass] ill. . . . I just don’t want him to be in journalism.”[ii] After becoming the poster boy for bad journalism, Glass left the magazine business, went to law school, and wrote a novel. Following the critical and commercial failure of his novel, Glass has reportedly worked as a paralegal and as an occasional member of a Los Angeles comedy troupe.

How did Glass get away with his fabrications? First, the magazines didn’t conduct fact-checking as well as they should have. Second, Glass would submit articles late so that they couldn’t be checked, and he would fabricate substantiation for them, such as a phony Web page and voice mail message for the beleaguered high-tech company in the hacker story.[iv] In an article for the political magazine George, Glass wrote a description of presidential advisor Vernon Jordan based on anonymous sources. He avoided the fact-checking by saying that his sources would be fired if they were contacted at work. After editors found out that Glass had been fabricating articles, fact-checkers discovered that the sources he had cited didn’t exist. To be fair to the fact-checkers, their procedures were designed to catch mistakes, not outright fabrications.

One result of the fallout from Glass’s fabrications was a renewed commitment to fact-checking at magazines; another was increased skepticism toward sensational stories, especially by young writers.

Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith at the Boston Globe

Patricia Smith resigned from the Boston Globe after being asked to do so by the editor. The winner of numerous writing awards during her eight years at the Globe, Smith admitted she had simply made up names and quotes in some of her columns. In her farewell column, she apologized to her readers:

“From time to time in my metro column, to create the desired impact or slam home a salient point, I attributed quotes to people who didn’t exist. I could give them names, even occupations, but I couldn’t give them what they needed most—a heartbeat. As anyone who’s ever touched a newspaper knows, that’s one of the cardinal sins of journalism: Thou shall not fabricate. No exceptions. No excuses.”

That same summer, another Boston Globe writer came under fire. Mike Barnicle, a long-time columnist for the paper and one of its best-known writers, came under suspicion for a number of reasons. In one case, jokes that had appeared in George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings also showed up, unattributed, in Barnicle’s column. Barnicle denied that he had read Carlin’s book, yet it was soon pointed out that he had reviewed the book for a local television station. He was left in the uncomfortable position of having to either admit that he had lied about not reading the book or confess that he had given a rave review to a book he hadn’t read.

Barnicle was originally given a lengthy suspension from the paper rather than being fired, largely because he was popular with readers. But then a second fabrication was discovered. Several years earlier, Barnicle had written a touching column about two boys—one black, one white—who shared a hospital room while they were being treated. When the black child died, Barnicle wrote, the white parents gave the black parents $10,000. In preparing to reprint the article, Reader’s Digest fact checkers investigated the story but found no one at any Boston hospital who could remember such a case taking place. After this became public knowledge, Barnicle resigned from the Globe.

(Barnicle later moved to hosting radio commentary on WTKK in Boston; being a regular guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program; and writing for a number of different publications, including the Boston Herald, Time magazine, and Huffington Post.[3] Since leaving newspaper journalism, Smith has been a successful poetry writer and performer.)

In addition to the shame of dealing with two ethical lapses in one summer, the Globe also had to confront charges that it had been harsh with Smith, a black woman, while giving Barnicle, a white man, a second chance. Brill’s Content, a media criticism magazine, even suggested that problems with Smith’s columns had been ignored for several years because confronting them would have forced editors to address similar charges that had been leveled against Barnicle.

Tomorrow – Part 3: Jon Stewart; the era of Donald Trump.

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What do we talk about when we talk about fake news? Part 1

Over the next three days I’m going to be sequentially posting a paper I’m giving at the Western Social Science Association.  Instead of being in the form of a traditional academic paper, I’m going to post it in HTML with links to many of the subjects I’m discussing, and links to Amazon for the books that I reference.

Introduction

What is fake news

The modern conception of the term fake news can likely date back to the start of Jon Stewart as the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. While The Daily Show has been on the air since July 21, 1996, with founding host Craig Kilborn and his guest Democratic operative David Axelrod. But the show did not really make its mark on American news culture until stand up comic Jon Stewart took over as host in January of 1999.  Over his 17-year run, Stewart would continue to maintain that he was a comic, not a newsman.

2004 was the year that brought fake news to the attention of American news consumers.  As can be seen in Table 1,  there were almost as many mentions of “fake news” in the Washington Post in 2004 as there had been in total between 1999 and 2003. And many of these were of Jon Stewart and his news-based comedy and satire.

But then in 2014, something new started to happen.  There was a sharp uptick in the use of the term “fake news,” with 51 mentions, followed by 60 mentions in 2015. The year 2016 brought an explosion in the use of “fake news” with 387 mention, of which 223 of them mentioned presidential candidate Donald Trump. That was just a beginning, however. The first three months of 2017 brought 846 mentions, of which 658 included mentions of Trump, and only 3 mentioned Stewart.

The uses of the term “fake news” since 2015 have been legion, including satire, hoaxes, partisan clickbait, foreign political manipulation, and general purpose media criticism.

This snapshot look at fake news does not give the full context of how we have seen made-up, satirical, and yes, fake news in the media industry.  This paper does not attempt to provide a comprehensive look at the history of fake news.  Instead, it is providing a series of snapshots of moments in fake news history.

Year Mentions Stewart Trump
1999 5 0
2000 2 0
2001 3 0
2002
2003 6 0
2004 17 11
2005 23 3
2006 21 7
2007 17 5
2008 9 2
2009 12 3
2010 11 8
2011 10 3
2012 4 3
2013 6 1
2014 51 3 1
2015 60 13 5
2016 387 3 223
2017 846 3 658

 

Table 1

Samuel Johnson – 1700s in Britain

Readers in some eras have accepted fictitious reports as journalism. Tom Koch, in his book “The News as Myth, Fact and Context in Journalism” (1990) talks about how in the 1730s and 40s, the British parliament passed a law making it illegal for journalists to report on the debates and actions of parliament. So Edward Cave, publisher of Gentlemen’s Magazine,  started running columns that were supposedly accounts of the “Parliament of Lilliput,” but there were really thinly disguised accounts of the real British parliament, largely written by that great man of British letters, Samuel Johnson.

Johnson’s fictionalized (and entertaining) accounts of the actions of the British parliament during the 1730s and 1740s were acceptable to readers because they understood that British law banned direct reporting on the actions of parliament. So these were “fake news” that were designed to tell “true” stories through the use of what was clearly fiction.  Koch writes:

“Indeed, most of the Parliament of Lilliput copy was, by modern journalistic standards, pure fabrication. It carried the sense of the events in Parliament but almost never the actual words or actions of its members.”

Mark Twain – Civil War Era in the United States

Plaque at site of Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada.

Mark Twain travelled west to live in Nevada Territory from 1861 – 1864.  He had deserted from the Confederate army and needed to get away from the actual United States for a while until things calmed down.

During that time, Twain spent considerable time working for the newspaper The Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada.

While there, he engaged in writing hoaxes that were known as “quaints.” Often these were done with the purpose of making a point for the reader, getting at some kind of higher truth. Take, for example, Twain’s story A BLOODY MASSACRE NEAR CARSON. In it, he tells a true story of corruption in the San Francisco market. But he hides the charges in a satirical story about a fictional massacre. But the satire was subtle enough that few readers recognized it as such, and the story was widely reprinted as fact.

This is something that we see Twain engaging in on a regular basis. Sometimes writing satire that is so subtle that it is missed; other times he is deliberately tweaking friends or public figures.

Twain’s “interesting stories” for the Enterprise were sometimes told as stories that were clearly meant to be believed, while others were told as tall tales that had no expectation of acceptance. Twain’s stories throughout his book Roughing It (which chronicles his trip west), frequently take on a blur between fact and fiction. George Plimpton, in his introduction to the Oxford Mark Twain edition of Roughing It has this to say about the nature of “truth” in the book:

“As I read along… I noticed about Twain’s asides that the truth is almost invariably stretched to the breaking point in order to give the incident or character a comic twist, and yet the reader never moans, “Oh, come off it!” It is part of Twain’s genius that he keeps us on the delicate edge of credulity — a condition which humorists, especially those who perform on the stage, strive to imitate. Every time a humorist confides to his audience that what is about to be told is a “true story,” one can be fairly sure that it will be nothing of the sort. Even Twain falls back on this on occasion. “That anecdote is true,” he insists after telling a story in Roughing It about a grizzled miner, long in the fields, who pays one hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of gold dust in a pouch to kiss a two-year-old child” (Plimpton 1996, pg. XXXII).

Plimpton goes on to note that Twain often builds his stories, starting with a reasonably believable story, goes to an exaggerated story, and finishes up with something that is absurd.

And yet, there are stories that at the time were almost unbelievable but were nevertheless rooted in fact. For example, a joke that he tells about a doctor in Utah being a vagrant is not strict fact, but even today Utah has a healthier population than any other state.

Twain learned about traditional journalism from two members of Enterprise staff: Dan De Quille and Joe Goodman. But Twain became bored with straight reporting about the mining industry. Twain became interested in the fanciful “quaints” that De Quille had been writing. Twain developed his use of the exaggerated story and his use of the “wink” to let people know it’s all a joke – something that many people missed.

It is easy to sit in judgment of Twain for his “fake news” – his out-and-out hoaxes, but we need to keep a couple of points in mind here. First, newspapers were the only locally produced media of consequence in Virginia City. To be sure, magazines and books would find their way in, but newspaper was the television, radio and cinema of its day. So providing entertainment to the reader was a basic part of the paper. Second, truth was something that was in short supply in Nevada at the time. Roughing It is full of accounts of unscrupulous men conning their neighbors with “salted” mines, worthless stock, and vague rumors.

Tomorrow – Part 2: Modern Day Hoaxes

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