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The History of Fake News from George Washington to Donald Trump

Misinformation is a political game that has been played for more than 200 years between presidents and the press. While the tools have changed over the years, the tactics of rumors, attacks and lies remain the same.

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That’s the difference between today and the founding generation. Eighteenth-century readers and consumers of news understood their subscriptions were intensely partisan. Many Americans today are unable to tell the difference.

In January 2017, then-President Trump called CNN “fake news” and the term quickly became synonymous with his administration’s disingenuous attacks on the media. The increasing partisan divide over the last four years has only exacerbated the proliferation of false information and bad-faith attacks on media organizations. While disinformation is rife and a dangerous threat to the health of our republic, this problem is not a new one. From the nation’s earliest days, presidents have grappled with fake news. The only difference is that bad actors today have many more tools at their disposal.

As factional differences solidified during George Washington’s first term as president, opposition newspapers began printing criticism, which increased in volume during his second term. He regularly complained of the newspaper treatment to friends and colleagues, especially when the papers printed outright lies.

During the Revolution, British forces forged letters from Washington claiming the war was a mistake. Toward the end of his presidency, the letters resurfaced. Washington’s enemies claimed the correspondence had been taken from William Lee, Washington’s enslaved valet, when Lee was captured by the British. There was only one problem — Lee never left Washington’s side during the war. While Washington ignored the letters in the 1770s, he could not remain silent two decades later. He wrote a fact-check letter and asked Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to file it in the state department archives.

But facts and evidence couldn’t stop his opponents and opposition newspapers kept up their trouble through the 1796 election. After John Adams was elected, the editors reluctantly conceded that John Adams would be better than his predecessor because Washington was a murderer. Washington was many things, but murderer was probably not one of them.

The pro-administration Federalist newspapers weren’t much better. During the 1800 presidential election campaign, they warned readers to bury their bibles. If Thomas Jefferson won, they continued, he would wage a war on religion and confiscate their treasured family volumes. Jefferson had no such plans and his election precipitated no war on Christianity.

Many other elections in the early decades of the U.S. were plagued by false accusations. In 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams put forth rumors that Rachel Jackson was a woman of ill-repute. Rachel died of a heart attack just before Andrew Jackson moved to the White House. He believed that the rumors had hurried her into an early grave and he never forgave his enemies.

While presidents of all political stripes were annoyed by the fake news, no one was surprised by the vitriol printed in the papers. Readers understood which papers were pro-Federalist, which papers were pro-Republican, and which papers tended toward a more neutral stand. For example, in 1796, as President Washington prepared his Farewell Address, he explicitly selected Claypoole’s Daily Advertiser because it avoided the political excesses of the Aurora General Advertiser or the Gazette of the United States. He wished the message to be read in as neutral a light as possible and chose the venue accordingly.

The role of the press in presidential elections began to evolve in the late 19th century with the emergence of a journalistic ethos that prized the pursuit of truth and a professionalism in reporting. Universities created journalism programs to teach standards and best practices, and journalism gained status as a respected career.

These shifts produced landmark reporting of corruption, crime, scandal and more. For example, the “muckrakers” were a group of serious journalists that published books and magazine articles about coal mine conditions, political corruption, trusts and monopolies, the meat packing industry, race riots and more. Their persuasive articles led to many reforms during the Progressive Era, including regulations of trusts, pollution, working conditions, and food and product safety.

Other famous examples of professional journalism include the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the extent of President Lyndon Johnson’s lies and misinformation about the war in Vietnam, and the investigation into the Watergate scandal which ultimately led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

To be sure, presidents weren’t always pleased that enterprising journalists dug up damaging information about their activities. President Nixon despised the press, threatened lawsuits whenever a paper printed “Tricky Dick,” and reportedly told his adviser Henry Kissinger “never forget, the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy…write that on the blackboard 100 times.”

On the other hand, some journalists protected presidents from scandal. The press notoriously turned a blind eye to John F. Kennedy’s public philandering and reporters rarely mentioned that Franklin D. Roosevelt was mostly confined to a wheelchair.

President Trump therefore served as a break with presidential tradition. Unlike previous presidents that grudgingly accepted the role of investigative journalism, Trump regularly accused mainstream media outlets of spreading fake news stories, while serving, along with his supporters, as one of the most prolific creators of disinformation. That information is then amplified by his allies and international actors hoping to capitalize on chaos in the United States.

Trump’s disinformation efforts enjoyed success for two reasons: Fox News and social media. First, Fox News was the first news channel in many decades that intentionally pursued a political agenda. While viewers may have perceived political bias in reporting at national news networks like NBC, CBS or CNN, Fox was the first to shape its content to support a political party from the top down.

Second, the rise of social media exploited users without the media literacy to discern truth from dis- or misinformation. Many older users expected social media sites to follow the same guidelines and practices employed by the traditional news sources that they had grown up reading. When social media, especially Facebook, accelerated the spread of false information, these viewers were unable to tell the difference. They believed they could trust what was published. They can’t.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.
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