In the early 1990s I was at a county fair when an elderly fellow — a WW II veteran and a Democrat — rushed up to me and said, “Jim, come here, you’ve got to see this!” and he hurried me to a military-style tent full of anti-government literature and pictures.
He took me up to a photograph, pointed to it and said, “Read it!” The hand written caption said, “Soviet Bulgarian tanks on Democratic Senator Max Baucus’ ranch.”
I could tell thy were tanks being transported on railroad flatcars, but I knew Bulgarian tanks from goldfish, and the train could have been anywhere.
I asked him how he could be sure of the facts, and just at that moment a man I knew better than I wanted to came up and said, pointing to the handwritten caption, “Because it says so right here!”
I looked at him and asked, “But isn’t that your handwriting?”
And he walked off in a huff without answering.
That, for me, was a pretty good example of fiction trying to pass for fact. Fake news, as it were.
One of the biggest doses of fake news Americans were ever given was on Halloween 1938, when many in the nation turned on the radio to listen to what sounded like a live news report of extraterrestrials landing a spacecraft in New Jersey and the horror and panic that it was causing. But that wasn’t the fake news. That came the next day when the newspapers covered the incident and blew it out of all proportion.
The radio broadcast was the weekly program of “Mercury Theater on the Air” with the actor Orson Welles reading a script adapted from the H. G. Wells novel, “War of the Worlds”. Those who tuned in at the beginning knew what was going on, and only very few thought it was real. But the following day newspapers claimed that the program had caused a widespread panic that never occurred.
According to snopes.com, newspapers were fighting a turf war with the increasingly popular medium of radio and were quick to use the issue as a way to discredit the radio industry as being irresponsible.
“Fake radio war stirs terror throughout the US” was the headline of the sensationalistic New York Daily News, and even the highly respected New York Times got into the act with the headline, “Radio listeners in panic, taking radio drama as fact”
But the facts were different, and the wire services that fed the news to America’s newspapers were a little more than fast and loose with their imaginations.
Today, anger at the press has risen considerably since the claim of “Fake News” was embraced by the Trump administration. So much so that reporters have been personally harassed and assaulted, including one assault from a Montana congressional candidate.
Recently, a Georgia state legislator went so far as to file a bill creating a government controlled “Journalistic Ethics Board.” The proposed board would have the authority to write rules governing journalistic conduct and the law would also require that journalists provide sources, and written and video copy used in a story if someone interviewed for the story requested it.
So much for journalists being able to protect their sources.
The fact that this action flies in the face of the First Amendment of the federal Constitution, not to mention the First Amendment of the Georgia Constitution does not seem to trouble the lawmaker. Nor does the ironic fact that the Georgia Legislature has exempted itself from scrutiny by making itself immune to open records requests.
The reason that the Bill of Rights was added to the U. S. Constitution was to restrict the power of government over the citizenry, not to protect the government from the citizen.
There are better ways to combat erroneous or biased news stories, and those ways go back to the founding of our nation when the varying viewpoints of adopting the Constitution were argued vigorously in partisan publications.
That would be the Constitution that says: “ Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…. ”
It was good idea 230 years ago and it’s good today.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly papers across Montana and online at missoulacurrent.com.