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A History of Fake News and Why it Threatens Democracy

 

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The term “fake news” has recently been tossed around by the current president when faced with criticism and attack from his opponents, and while people of the younger generation consider this behavior by a president unheard of, older citizens find the discrediting of negative news reports eerily familiar: During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations used the televised and printed news to spread false information about the United States’ role in the Vietnam War while journalists reported a different narrative. This era is considered the last time Americans thoroughly trusted their government. During this time, citizens of the United States were conflicted between trusting media coverage or government issued information. The importance of a free press and a journalist’s ability to challenge the unreliable assertions of their leaders cannot be overlooked.

The Problem

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As a journalist for the New York Times, Karl Marlantes, recounts, he was initially appalled by the notion that the government he trusted and praised would not tell him the truth. In 1967, when a friend of him suggested that Johnson was withholding information about the war from the public, Marlantes said, “But … but an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!”3 He recalls that his claim was met by laughter from the group. Whether the public knew about it or not, there were countless occasions in which the government was either vague or brutally dishonest.4

America’s current administration has adopted the strategy of discrediting the media that opposes it and reports news that highlights its flaws. The President has repeatedly called the news outlets CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other outlets commonly aligned with liberal values, “fake news.” This strategy is very effective as it both relieves the President from criticism while invalidating those outlets and questioning their authenticity in future and past articles. A similar example of this tactic used by a President is when Johnson accused a reporter from CBS of faking a video of American troops burning down 150 huts in a rural Vietnamese village. The President then accused the reporter of supplying the troops with the lighters himself to get a good shot and promote his own career.5 As Marlantes states, “Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying.”6

The History of this Issue

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This is a picture of Washington Post journalist Daniel Ellsberg after the federal government dropped their charges against him for releasing more intelligence from the Pentagon Papers

 

Though the Vietnam War era is famous for catching multiple administrations brutally lying to the public, presidents have been misleading the public on occasion since the late 1800s. President William McKinley allowed the country to believe that a battleship, USS Maine, had been sunk in Havana Harbor by an enemy assumed to be Spain. McKinley approved articles with headlines such as “Spanish Treachery!” and “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy!”8 to be published and distributed without addressing the fact that these were speculations and nothing more. Headlines such as these started what is now known as “yellow journalism,” or newspapers taking advantage of a minor situation and transforming it into a major story, most commonly evoking the feeling of impending catastrophe (U.S. History 10). McKinley used the USS Maine as an excuse to enter the Spanish-American War, allowing the hyperbolic papers to create a tidal wave of public support. While McKinley mislead the public by allowing them to believe a myth, some presidents have chosen to declare fallacies to the public. An example would be Dwight Eisenhower’s U-2 Incident of 1960. President Eisenhower repeatedly assured his country that the military had no planes flying over the USSR. However, when one of his CIA pilots flying a U-2 was shot out of the sky over Soviet Russia, all of his claims about peace and isolation came crashing down.9

The web of lies surrounding Vietnam that were kept secret over multiple administrations made citizens question the integrity of their government as a whole, making them suspicious of their past and future leaders. The United States formally announced to the public that they would be entering Vietnam with military force after a battleship, USS Maddox, was allegedly fired at by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964.10 The actual events of this incident remain a mystery, but many speculate that it was a fabricated assault designed to make American citizens support intervention in Vietnam. With the release of the Pentagon Papers, first published by Neil Sheehan for the New York Times, it was revealed that the United States had been involved in Vietnam for much longer that the public was aware of. Sheehan describes how the United States had been aiding the French in Vietnam since 1950 and started engaging in “acts of sabotage and terror warfare against the North Vietnamese beginning in 1954,”11 exposing another lie that had been kept from the public since the Truman Administration. The government also did not disclose the fragility of the Republic of South Vietnam’s political situation. Under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, Buddhism, a religion with which 80 percent of the country identified, was severely and systematically persecuted. Monks took to publically burning themselves in the streets to protest their oppression. In 1963, Diem and his family were murdered in a coup, leaving the crippled country to military leader Duong Van Minh. Two years later, Max Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President Johnson, when asked about the state of the government his administration was spending a massive amount of resources on, said that he was optimistic despite “that old problem of stability of government”12 in South Vietnam. It is evident that this exposure turned the public suspicious of the government for generations to come.

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As seen in the graph, courtesy of PEW Research, the percent of people who trust the government took a nosedive from the mid-60s to the late-70s during the era of the Vietnam War. Since that time, it never returned to the high percentage it was before Johnson’s presidency. The highest it has been since was during George W. Bush’s presidency when it got up to 60%. That was before he lied about the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was allegedly harboring. The percentage of people that trust the government hit an all-time low during Obama’s presidency, most likely as a result of his unsatisfied promise to take troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It went up marginally before the Trump Administration took office and started to decline again.

The Current Day Problem

Trump is estimated to have told the most lies within the first year of his presidency according to the Washington Post. They claim to have spotted over 2,000 lies told by him personally when he celebrated one year in office. That is excluding falsehoods said by his staffers or surrogates.14 This behavior and attempted deception has not been seen in the White House to this degree for almost 50 years. Now it is more needed than ever to create a solution to this ever growing problem.

 

Click to see a video from the Washington Post15

www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/10/president-trump-has-made-more-than-2000-false-or-misleading-claims-over-355-days/?utm_term=.764af5ff4f76.

 

The rise of fake news distributed by the government has lead many people to question its integrity and confuse the public on who to trust for reliable information. People have grown accustomed to the government lying so they have stopped searching for a solution, but I have not. A possible solution to this pressing issue is to appoint a bipartisan committee whose job it is to publicize the lies or misrepresentations coming from all around the government. Nowadays, it is easy to find unreliable information, whether it comes in the form of hyperboles on the left, understatements on the right, or falsehoods originating in the White House. The committee will not just be appointed to the White House, but Congress as well to hold all parties responsible for the rise of fake news. Making them responsible for both Democrats and Republicans would ensure that supporters of both parties would pay attention to what the committee releases instead of it mostly being pointed in one direction.

A problem with this solution would be the question of who appoints them. I would suggest that each state holds a popular vote and contributes a member to the committee. The members should have a primarily judiciary experience instead of a business or political experience because this background suggests that the members are impartial and will be able to look at facts objectively. Because a committee of a few cannot keep up with the assertions of hundreds, citizens will be able to make tips when they think they see or hear a representative declare a falsehood. Because this committee will be primarily concerned with inflexible facts and allow deeper investigation lie with the justice system, it will be easy and quick to determine whether the accusation is valid or invalid. The humiliation and anger that would come as a result of having your lies publicly exposed would also serve as a deterrent in itself as well.

What Can You Do?

I urge you all to take initiative and call your representatives and urge them to both tell the truth themselves and expose the lies of their colleagues. To find out who your representative is, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative and type in your zip code. After you find your representative, you can search their name on google, find their profile on house.gov, and click on the green rectangle that says, “Contact [Congressman]”.

As an aspiring journalist and a young student witnessing the second rise of fake news accusations and the spreading of inaccurate information, this topic has compelled me for quite a while. Whenever I see a story on a more liberal news outlet, I look for the same story on outlets such as Fox News to see how they report on it. To see these polar opposite reports on the same story makes me wonder which narrative to believe.Another reason this topic compels me is that my dad grew up surrounded by the heated political climate of the Vietnam War. As the war was in full tilt in the late 60s and early 70s, my dad was in high school and starting to understand the way politics and the government work. He grew up fearing that his older brother would be drafted and sent off to a distant part of the world to fight a force few in the United States understood.


Endnotes:

1:  “Overview of the White House.” Overview – White House Museum, http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/overview.htm.

2: “The Real Consequences of Fake News.” Phys.org – News and Articles on Science and Technology, phys.org/news/2017-07-real-consequences-fake-news.html.

3: Marlantes, Karl. “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/sunday/vietnam-the-war-that-killed-trust.html.

4: Marlantes, Karl. “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/sunday/vietnam-the-war-that-killed-trust.html.

5: Cohen, Richard. “Vietnam, a War between Truth & Lies.” NY Daily News, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, 19 Sept. 2017, www.nydailynews.com/opinion/vietnam-war-truth-lies-article-1.3504827.

6: Marlantes, Karl. “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/sunday/vietnam-the-war-that-killed-trust.html.

7: Burr, Ty. Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 12 Feb. 2010, www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/02/12/in_dangerous_man_ellsberg_again_powers_moral_drama/.

8: PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/crucible/tl10.html.

9: “The Cold War Museum.” Cold War Museum, www.coldwar.org/articles/60s/u2_incident.asp.

10: “USNI Logo.” The Truth About Tonkin | U.S. Naval Institute, www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin.

11: Sheehan, Neil. New York Times (1923-Current File); June 13, 1971,  ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times.

12: “Taylor Voices Optimism.” New York Times (1923-Current File); Jan. 2 1965, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times.

13: Bell, Peter. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 3 May 2017, www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/.

14: Kessler, Glenn, and Meg Kelly. “Analysis | President Trump Has Made More than 2,000 False or Misleading Claims over 355 Days.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/10/president-trump-has-made-more-than-2000-false-or-misleading-claims-over-355-days/?utm_term=.764af5ff4f76.

15: Kessler, Glenn, and Meg Kelly. “Analysis | President Trump Has Made More than 2,000 False or Misleading Claims over 355 Days.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/10/president-trump-has-made-more-than-2000-false-or-misleading-claims-over-355-days/?utm_term=.764af5ff4f76.

 

Works Cited

Bell, Peter. “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2017.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 3 May 2017, www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/.

Burr, Ty. Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 12 Feb. 2010, www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/02/12/in_dangerous_man_ellsberg_again_powers_moral_drama/.

Cohen, Richard. “Vietnam, a War between Truth & Lies.” NY Daily News, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS, 19  Sept. 2017, www.nydailynews.com/opinion/vietnam-war-truth-lies-article-1.3504827.

Kessler, Glenn, and Meg Kelly. “Analysis | President Trump Has Made More than 2,000 False or Misleading Claims over 355 Days.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/01/10/president-trump-has-made-more-than-2000-false-or-misleading-claims-over-355-days/?utm_term=.764af5ff4f76.

Marlantes, Karl. “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/07/opinion/sunday/vietnam-the-war-that-killed-trust.html.

“Overview of the White House.” Overview – White House Museum, http://www.whitehousemuseum.org/overview.htm.

PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/crucible/tl10.html.

Sheehan, Neil. New York Times (1923-Current File); June 13, 1971,  ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times.

“Taylor Voices Optimism.” New York Times (1923-Current File); Jan. 2 1965, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times.

“The Cold War Museum.” Cold War Museum, www.coldwar.org/articles/60s/u2_incident.asp.

“The Real Consequences of Fake News.” Phys.org – News and Articles on Science and Technology, phys.org/news/2017-07-real-consequences-fake-news.html.

“USNI Logo.” The Truth About Tonkin | U.S. Naval Institute, www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-02/truth-about-tonkin.

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COMMENTS: 2
  1. April 27, 2018 by Alex Treisman

    This is a very interesting project idea! I thought it was very interesting and engaging how you tracked the issue of fake news all the way back to its origin. That was really interesting to me because I didn’t realize how prevalent it was during the Vietnam War. I think you provided a lot of interesting information!

  2. April 28, 2018 by Minjeong.Kim

    This is a topic that should ultimately be broached. Recently, I read an article about the fake news and the exaggeration of today’s news, and as I read, I learned that people’s belief towards the news are waning and dwindling as time passes by. I think that this may lead to detrimental effects as trust and honesty is essential when the news media are communicating with the public. Furthermore, I also believe that this is a topic that should be ultimately discussed because as you mentioned, President Trump has told plethora of lies during his presidency, so it is important for the news media to detect the lies and only inform the public with the truth.

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