Presidential Column: Making the News

by Nancy F. Cott

As 2017 opens, journalism in the United States appears to be facing a unique crisis. Newspapers and magazines sustained their breaking-news role in the face of radio and television competition during the twentieth century (if in diminished form), but in the twenty-first century the digital revolution has more or less eviscerated the long-held relationships between print media and local politics and advertising. For years now, online media have threatened the economic viability of printed newspapers: the death of dozens of them and consolidation and/or reduction to digital form of others has been a result. Digital platforms for breaking news, commentary, and scandal have multiplied—their economic stability not the least bit assured, but their potential to multiply readers’ access to varied sources of information and misinformation obvious. There are many tremendous advantages to the digital revolution in journalism, including access for fledgling writers. Also, the pressure for print newspapers and magazines to reinvent themselves has led well-supported ones to stress superbly worthwhile in-depth investigative reporting and commentary. But the consequences of the digital revolution (allied with the powerful search engines that guide it) are highly varied and we certainly haven’t yet seen the full panoply.

Perhaps most important to the realm of public knowledge is the essential network aspect of the ‘web,’ which means that any information easily has a multiplier effect via links that connect it to similar or related information. This opens worlds upon worlds of information to users of computers in remote locations whose counterparts in the past were isolated from larger knowledge. It is broadening, eye-opening, and educational in the largest sense. But within a wider and wider ambit of available information, individuals have to select. The web has already had tremendous consequences in multiplying and magnifying the existence within the general public of ‘niche’ publics whose knowledge-worlds are intentionally confined to information confirming attitudes or beliefs already held (often aggressively held because of frequent confirmation in limited sources).

More recently, social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have intensified these digital effects by making it possible to circulate a given article or story exponentially in a few seconds to communities that may number in the millions. Even eerier, robots rather than humans may be massively circulating stories, as reporter Amanda Hesser has revealed (“On Twitter, a Battle among Political Bots” Dec. 14, 2016). These developments (with no particular slant in and of themselves but with potential to move in many directions) have had tremendous consequences for social movements all around the political spectrum, as well as for individuals who identify themselves with small minorities of the differently-abled who can now find one another.

An ironic result of the digital revolution in information has been increased indeterminacy in ascertaining what is factual and what is not. This has become all the more worrisome lately because of the stunning prevalence of untruths propagated and widely believed during the presidential campaign of 2016. ‘Fake news’ has become a major public issue in the last year. As I write, one ‘masterpiece’ of fake news has come to light, created intentionally during the 2016 presidential campaign by a supporter of Donald Trump to back up with seeming evidence the rumor that votes for Hilary Clinton were “rigged.” The only actual fraud was the story, which nonetheless took hold on an expanding populace.

While historical comparisons have their risks, I cannot resist seeing some parallels here to conditions faced by American journalists in Europe in the 1930s. Despite the seeming affirmation of parliamentary governments upholding citizens’ rights to speech, assembly, and representation just after the First World War, Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s saw authoritarian governments spread from one nation after another, often led by charismatic leaders who mobilized support through mass popular politics and promised—especially once the Great Depression brought economic instability—to restore prosperity through new forms of state control. (Echoes of this taking place today are chilling.) Europe saw an “accelerating, increasingly catastrophic, retreat of liberal political institutions,” in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm.[1]

State control of public information spread like a cancer as a result. By 1935, around 300 million people in Europe and Russia lived without a free press. State censorship on the one hand and propaganda on the other controlled what the public knew. The situation frustrated and horrified virtually every American journalist reporting on Europe, conditioning all commentary on news from abroad by the mid-1930s.[2] They were well aware that not only authoritarian states but parliamentary republics, too, controlled public information to some extent to benefit those already holding power. All governments then and now did. All are selective about what information they release, all the time. But the extent mattered. And the situation in Europe in the 1930s was of a different scale and seriousness from anything previously seen.

Dorothy Thompson, one of the most influential journalists in the United States in the mid-1930s, with a thrice-weekly syndicated column and a weekly radio show, often made this a theme. She had been a foreign correspondent in Austria and Germany in the 1920s and continued writing about developments there, stressing that the principles of a free press and an informed citizenry, both of which she considered essential to representative government, had been demolished and abandoned under authoritarian rule. Thompson grounded her journalistic principles in the existence of facts and the responsibility of the journalist to report them correctly. For her, this moved beyond a political or professional necessity in the 1930s to become a moral issue, as she recognized (to her distress) that facts would not rule: people would believe the way the facts were spun, and fascist governments were always, conclusively, spinning the facts. "Deprive the populace of real news—and you disarm it," another well-known journalist warned at that time.[3]

Our worries today center on selected partial truths, untruths, and the creation of ‘fake news,’ all of which were at play in the 1930s, often disastrously so, along with rigorous censorship. If we face a frighteningly effective new technology for information circulation and control today, so did people in the 1930s: the radio. Thompson witnessed the power of radio in fascist use of it in Austria and Germany. She was in Germany in August 1934 for the plebiscite that Hitler called to confirm his supreme power and sole authority. The Reich put on an immense propaganda campaign even though there was no chance that the plebiscite would go against Hitler (and it would not have mattered if it did). The day of Hitler’s culminating speech was declared a national holiday so that everyone could hear him on national broadcast; everyone owning a radio was instructed to turn it on and invite radio-less neighbors to join in listening; in every restaurant, theater, public square and other public gathering place in every city, loudspeakers were installed to boom his words everywhere. “As an effort in broadcasting,” the New York Times reported, it was “unsurpassed anywhere.”[4]

Thompson called the radio a “new revolutionary instrument” in a dramatically urgent article reporting on the failed Nazi putsch in Austria in July of 1934, where a broadcast falsely declaring a change in government was a central part of the plot.[5] She recognized the new advantages of radio over printed media for mind control. Radio was direct, manipulable from a central source, and the state could make it “practically inescapable”—as Hitler did once his party had seized the popular medium. Printed media were more elusive: courageous dissidents might circulate illegal newspapers in the face of arrest, but the state alone commanded the airwaves. The Austrian Nazi Party’s failed attempt was mild compared to the way the German party accomplished its parliamentary victory by creating fake news. The parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag, erupted in flames at the end of February 1933. Hitler’s party blamed the shocking crime (the work of a lone perpetrator) on a communist plot, in order to foment public fear and fury about Communism in advance of the coming national legislative election. In the March election—with Nazi storm troopers terrorizing the opposition, civil rights suspended by emergency decree, and the government in control of public communication—the Nazi party won 44 percent of the vote and proceeded to wipe out the elected Communists by throwing most of them into jail, thus gaining a majority for themselves in a legislature of diminished numbers.[6]

Under the rigid state censorship in much of Europe in the 1930s, American journalists in Europe worried constantly about having too few sources outside the official ones, which they could not trust. They burrowed under or around constraints, always wary of compromising the safety of their covert informants (who could be jailed for treason if discovered). Today, we have the opposite problem: seemingly infinite sources of information, few of which are necessarily trustworthy. The circulation of potentially fake news alongside potentially ‘real’ news in the United States today implies a universe of journalism broad and free enough to allow both to jostle and influence each other.

Thus the web and social media have shown that a free press has the defects of its virtues: now any crazy, malicious, or simply misinformed person can post ‘news’ that will be read and believed, and then multiplied by those who favor it. Those of us historians who use newspapers as sources from the past (a method made vastly easier by digitization) have often had to evaluate a printed story against other sources to assess whether it is accurate enough to rely on. As citizens do we habitually exercise similar cautions while reading ‘on the web’? Current developments require extraordinary vigilance from us as citizens and historians, simply to ascertain what can be believed and what not, under the reign of a U.S. president whose most revealing words are tweets.

Notes

[1]Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (1996), 109–11 (quotation on 111), and see all of chapter 4, “The Fall of Liberalism,” 109–41.

[2] Robert W. Desmond, The Press and World Affairs with an introduction by Harold J. Laski (1937), 142 for 300 million figure. Cf. Leland Stowe, “Propaganda over Europe,” Scribners Magazine, 95 (Aug. 1934), 99–101.

[3] Will Irwin, Propaganda and the News (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1936), p. 226.

[4] Frederick T. Birchall, “Hamburg to Greet Hitler as Hero at Key Talk of Campaign Today,” New York Times, Aug. 17, 1934, p. 1.

[5] Dorothy Thompson, “The Great War of Words,” Saturday Evening Post, Dec. 1, 1934, 8–9 ff.

[6] Dorothy Thompson, “Back to Blood and Iron,” Saturday Evening Post, May 6, 1933, 3–4 ff.

Author

Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. Her writings range widely over questions concerning women, gender, marriage, feminism, and citizenship in the United States, and include The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977); The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987); and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000). Her interests also include the history of social movements, political culture, and law. Her current project concerns Americans who came of age in the 1920s and shaped their lives internationally.