Andrea/Cara here, I saw this 1894 cartoon from Punch magazine the other day, and it was a good reminder that our current media brouhaha over “fake news” and “alternative facts” are, alas, nothing new. History shows that from time we first learned to communicate with each other, be it in telling stories around the fire, painting pictograms on cave walls, or writing on a clay tablet, we’ve tended to shape our narratives based on the view through our own tinted spectacles! (As Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me because I intend to write it.”
There have been some particularly outrageous times of media hype and spin in history—the 1890s in America is one prime example. Hearst’s newspapers pretty much ignited the Spanish-American War though its outright lies. The term “yellow journalism”, which refers to outrageous, sensationalist headlines just to sell papers, was created in response the press manipulation of public opinion.
The Georgian and Regency eras had their own excesses, too. In doing a little research, I discovered they, too, were well skilled in the art of fake news and inciting scandal. The 18th century saw the advent of “paragraph” men. It seems that many of the newspapers were based on simply compiling snippets, or paragraphs, supplied by people who frequented the London clubs, coffeehouses and social activities. Some were paid, and some did it just to be able to sway public opinion.
Were facts important? Um, not so much. The paragraph men could skewer whoever they disliked—or be paid by a politician to do dirty work against an opponent. And human nature being what it is, the more outrageous the accusation or the reported transgression, the more it titillated the public.
A leader of “fake news” was the Reverend Sir Henry Bate Dudley, who founded The Morning Post in 1772. One of his most famous bouncers was reporting in 1784 that Marie Antoinette was keeping an English gigolo:
The Gallic Queen is partial to the English. In fact, the majority of her favorites are of this country; but no one has been so notoriously supported by her as Mr. W—-. Though this gentleman’s purse was known to be dérangé when he went to Paris, yet he has ever since lived there in the first style of elegance, taste and fashion. His carriages, his liveries, his table have all been upheld with the utmost expense and splendor.
After quarreling with his partners at The Morning Post, Bate went on to found a rival scandalsheet called The Morning Herald. (Bate was dubbed the Dueling Preacher because of his love fighting with both fists and pistols. He challenged one of his erstwhile partners to a duel, and was also said to have thrashed a professional boxer to a pulp at Vauxhall Gardens over a supposed insult to a lady.)
The Morning Post then hired an even more outrageous editor, the Reverend William Jackson, who was known as “Dr. Viper” for his extreme nastiness. (What is it with these Men of the Cloth!) The ensuing press battles make our own era look rather tame! At one point, Bate was sentenced to a year in prison for libeling the Duke of Richmond. And the great Samuel Johnson was quoted as saying, “I will not allow this man [Bate] to have merit; no, Sir, what he has is rather the contrary.”
Along with his slanders, Bate also had a knack for self-promotion marketing his scandalsheets. “Pre-gaming” our own era’s understanding of drawing attention through spectacle, he once sent out forty men dressed in gaudy uniforms to pass out handbills on Piccadilly Street with snippets from his newspaper.
And then, of course, there were the satirical cartoonists, who were also merciless in pouncing on the peccadilloes of the rich and famous. Their motto seemed to be “Truth be Damned” if it made a good image! One contemporary called James Gillray, one of the leading artists of the era “a caterpillar on the leaf of reputation.” (The image shown here of Vauxhall Gardens is said to include both Bate and Jackson, along with other notable people of the era.)
I’m not sure whether all this makes me feel better or worse about the current state of the news. What with all the bloggers and blatantly phony “news” sites given life by the internet, it seems truth is even more elusive than ever. I find myself reading the newspapers less, simply because it’s depressing to see all the mudslinging going on instead of rational, constructive discourse.
What about you? Where do you turn for “real” news these days? Or like me, are you tuning out as much as possible? I must say, for me, reading a good book is far more uplifting than reading the daily headlines!