Oscar Wilde and the Tradition of Fake News in Journalism

With the publication of another laughable fake New York Times news story citing so-called anonymous official sources, the practice of using fake news in contemporary mainstream media for political goals has become common knowledge. However the culture of fake news runs way back in the history of news and journalism in America and the west.

David M. Friedman’s book Wilde in America gives an account of multiple instances of what would today qualify for fake news. The book, which is a detailed account of Oscar Wilde’s famous year-long visit to the United States in 1882, shows how at times, the fake reporting involves the editorial section where opinion and letters are published. Such an instance is mentioned in the 5th chapter (The Subject Is Always You; p. 133) where the author talks about the editor, William T. Stead of an English paper Pall Mall Gazette.

Stead joined the Gazette in 1880, which means he was there in 1881 when the paper published several obviously fabricated letters mocking Wilde’s impending lecture tour of the United States.

Such content either in form of letters or opinion pieces is routinely published today to mock President Trump or other anti-establishment figures in the political realm.

Later in the same chapter, the author touches on another form of fake news in papers in America—namely, misattribution of quotes. The book says that Wilde started noticing quotes attributed to him that he was certain he had not said, or said elsewhere and to someone different than reported (p. 145). The author includes a few examples of such fake news, or incorrect reporting to put it more mildly.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t happy with the way he was mistreated by the American press during his visit to the country. The press seemed to act as a gang attacking Wilde and according to the book, when the Washington Post joined this kind of mocking aimed at belittling Wilde, the situation became unbearable (p. 146).

Then there were the most radical cases of fake news: making up stories. In more recent political history of America, the Trump-Russia collusion of 2016 is one of the most classic examples of fake news that all leftist media. We see that back then, more than a century ago in the United States, reporters made up stories and editors published them without verification.

Friedman’s book describes a couple incidents reported by a Kentucky salesman Joseph Mulhattan: one about the discovery that George Washington’s corpse had transformed into rock and another about seeing a young girl carried up and away by a bundle of balloons that she held in her hand. (p.166)

Maybe it’s not surprising that Mulhattan was known as the “Liar Laureate of the United States.”

We could of course name quite a few Mulhattans of our times in the world of fake news and yellow journalism that make up things and place them with publications that are more about propaganda than actual reporting. The point here is that the culture of fake news—a form of professional lying—has been part of the history of journalism for decades, even centuries. With today’s social media and alterative news sources, it has become a little easier in our age to catch and expose the fakers from the comfort of our keyboards, albeit a skeptical spirit and the moral courage to call a fake a fake are pre-requisites here.

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