by Gabriella Angeloni
As we approach April 29 – Trump’s one-hundredth day in office – the problem of fake news, and how to combat it, continues to dog us. Although it was undoubtedly a buzzword that perfectly encapsulated 2016 (and, I would argue, has more staying power than ‘post-truth’), fake news is hardly a recent problem. As Gregory Schneider points out in his latest for the Washington Post, “The fake news that haunted George Washington,” America has a long history with fabricated, faux news. But, as Schneider underscores, Washington (ever mindful of posterity) exercised “restraint” rather than lashing out against the press for digging up decades-old fake headlines and re-circulating them during his presidency. Rather than dismissing Washington’s response as the product of a unique level of self-discipline, or making the “‘fake news’ epidemic” a “teachable moment” for undergraduates at four-year universities, it may be more useful to focus our attention on the practices that make “fake news” possible. The role of “fake news” in the 2016 election suggests that we must shift our ways of reading—particularly reading critically—from the start. What we read, and how we read it, matters. It shapes our worldviews, and, studies suggest, it even affects our actions. By looking to historical example—from the impact of the Zenger trial and the rise of the partisan press to contemporary ways of reading—we might find an historical remedy for our not-so-modern problem.
Crown v. John Peter Zenger (1735) is often identified as a landmark case in shaping early American notions of the freedom of the press. Zenger, printer of the New-York Weekly Journal, published highly critical pieces on New York’s royal governor, William Cosby. Among the articles’ many accusations: that Cosby was corrupt and rigged elections (sound familiar?). Nearly a year after the first publications, royal governor Cosby issued a proclamation. In it, he singled out John Peter Zenger and his New-York Weekly Journal for the “divers[e] Scandalous, Virulent, False and Seditious Reflections … contrived by the Wicked Authors of them, not only to create Jealousies, Discontents and Animosities in the Minds of his Majesty’s Liege People … but to alienate their Affection from the best of Kings, and raise Factions, Tumults and Sedition among them.”[i] Ten days later, Zenger was arrested and charged with libel. In the ensuing months, his attorneys argued that a statement, if true, is not libel. Although the jury was instructed by the judge to decide whether Zenger was guilty of publishing the material, the jury returned with a “not guilty” verdict, affirming that printed rancorous material was not libel if demonstrably true and upholding the freedom of the press.
Of course, this colonial precedent didn’t stop fake news in the eighteenth century. But the Revolutionary and Founding generations were able to combat blatant lies and the marks of dirty campaigning. Who could forget, for example, the nasty mudslinging of the election of 1800? Jeffersonians called then-President Adams a “hideous hermaphroditical character” with “neither the force or firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Not one to be outdone, Adams responded in kind, accusing Jefferson of being “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, however, were able to mend their friendship years later. While time certainly was a factor, both gentlemen also took part in a culture of reading very different from our own. While Jefferson proclaimed a strong preference for the press in a 1787 letter to Edward Carrington, the oft-quoted line usually sheds its qualifier: “every man should receive those [news]papers & be capable of reading them [emphasis added].”
“The role of “fake news” in the 2016 election suggests that we must shift our ways of reading—particularly reading critically—from the start. What we read, and how we read it, matters. It shapes our worldviews, and, studies suggest, it even affects our actions.”
It is this mid-eighteenth-century spirit of reading—the free circulation of materials and the careful reading of them—that remedied the evils of fake news. The contemporary rise of the novel, as well as the prevalent belief that handwritten manuscript was more reliable than typeset words printed on the page, may have prompted the development of this particular method of reading. Regardless, it led many to read widely, cross-reference what they read, and form their own opinions—rather than accepting wholesale one article or pamphlet or book over another. Commonplacing – the keeping of personal compendiums of useful, memorable readings – was widespread, and traces of readers’ interventions survive in scratched notes and citations on cramped margins and blank fly-leaves.
Scanning the libraries of Washington, Jefferson, and their contemporaries provides evidence for this method of reading. But so, too, do contemporary letters. A personal favorite, written by South Carolinian John Rutledge to his younger brother Edward in 1769—just as nineteen-year-old Ned arrived in London to study law at the Inns of Court—is filled with reading recommendations for genres, authors, and languages, but also details exactly how one should read.[ii] The older, wiser brother instructed the younger to “read with great care and attention,” to read “over and over … till you understand thoroughly,” and even delineated between skimming and intensive reading. He urged Edward to compare authors within genres, and to compare what he read to his own observations. Although he advised reading books “carefully and deliberately,” rather than “just to run cursorily through [them], as you would a newspaper,” we might today take John’s advice and consider reading everything—particularly the news—with the same intention as we would more serious tomes. Just this week on NPR’s Here & Now, Stephen Hayes, editor of the Weekly Standard, worried about “people peddling untruths to make a political case” and urged for rational political discussion and “exchanges of views.” This can only happen if we take Rutledge’s advice to heart and alter our ways of reading.
“Rather than reading from a variety of authors with a multitude of worldviews, the average reader encounters only those slants with which he or she already agrees. But it is essential to encourage careful reading, just as the Founding generation practiced and hoped for the new nation.”
Unfortunately—if for no other reason than its quaint charm—printed materials today aren’t usually introduced and legitimized with “Dear Reader,” and our modern ways of reading are strikingly different from those of the Washingtons, Jeffersons, or Rutledges of an earlier age. Most of us get our news from Facebook newsfeeds and Google – which, as a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal points out, is problematic. Rather than reading from a variety of authors with a multitude of worldviews, the average reader encounters only those slants with which he or she already agrees. But it is essential to encourage careful reading, just as the Founding generation practiced and hoped for the new nation.
Gabriella Angeloni is a PhD candidate in History at the University of South Carolina researching personal libraries and material culture in the Revolutionary era. Her dissertation allows her unparalleled access to many leather-bound books and rich mahogany. When not hard at work researching and writing, she can alternately be found curating the Miles Brewton House, gushing at the Heyward-Washington House, and selling old books in Charleston. She can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @GAinSoCarolina.
[i] Frederic Hudson, Journalism in the United States, from 1690 to 1872 (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1873), 82.
[ii] John Rutledge to Edward Rutledge, Charlestown, 30 July 1769 in John Belton O’Neall, Biographical Sketches of the Bench and Bar of South Carolina, Vol. II (Charleston: S. G. Courtenay & Co., 1859), 120-127.