Fake News First

Some portion of the world – especially those places coincidental with newsrooms – is atwitter about “fake news.”

That is, information that (or human beings who) purport to presenting factual reporting about the day’s events, occurrences, personalities, politics and similar topics. (Wags will quickly note “political news” is an oxymoron.)

The venerable Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, recently (March 3, 2017) offered three pages in its magazine section to the subject. Included was the presumed antidote, one not-so-coincidentally supplied thanks to higher education: Information Literacy.

The current hub-bub over so-called fake news, media and journalism historians might be prone to argue, is a not-so-new phenomenon. Indeed, maybe fake news has existed as long as has – or maybe slightly longer than – news.

But we probably don’t have to go all the way back to the days of town criers, never mind those guys scratching out images on the walls of caves, to locate extraordinary examples of fake news. And, maybe more significantly, how easily at least some people are tricked, fooled or momentarily deluded.

Imagine the distress experienced by more than a million Americans who together learned about an invasion and, subsequently, panicked. In a world where people fly jet airplanes into skyscrapers, this is hardly far-fetched.

But an invasion by Martians? That is, beings from the planet Mars. The story was made credible by locating the site of the invasion in New Jersey.

Anything is possible in New Jersey, for Pete’s sake. And Grover’s Mill, NJ seems as good a place as any for Martians to set down their space ships. Even Martians know better than to travel to, say, Newark or Secaucus. Unless they want discounted, factory outlet merchandise.

Orson Welles, a highly regarded enfant terrible, and his Mercury Theatre actors broadcast their version of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds as a Halloween episode, October 30, 1938.

Some six million people heard the broadcast. And up to one out of three thought the broadcast real. News, in other words. Following the broadcast, anecdotal reports told of citizens rushing to police stations to offer their help while others fled their homes by any means possible.

Two years later, a Princeton professor’s research sought to explain what had occurred (The Invasion from Mars, 1940). Almost 75 years after that book’s publication, two media historians revised the earlier study’s findings (“The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” 2013).

At a time when expertise is negotiable and the opinions of a centerfold model are treated as equal to those of scientists, still we wonder what the President claimed this week.

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