January 13, 1920 Fake News

In the English Standard Version of the Bible, proverbs 12:15 translates: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice”. Socrates famously observed “I know one thing, that I know nothing. The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

It was a fine day in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A good day to rob a bank. So thought 44-year-old McArthur Wheeler, but Mr. Wheeler was no ordinary crook. As they might say in the Shiddy o’ Bwahshtun, McArthur Wheeler was schmaht. Wikid schmaht.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. – Charles Darwin

As any 10-year-old will tell you, lemon juice makes a great, invisible ink. What better way to make Yourself invisible to bank cameras, (thought McArthur Wheeler), than to smear your face with lemon juice. The man even ran an experiment. A Polaroid selfie. The experiment was a success, notwithstanding the polaroid’s tendency to “wash out” subjects photographed, too close-up. No matter. The photo showed an over-illuminated blob where the face was supposed to be. Hypothesis: correct. Lemon juice Did make your face invisible, to cameras.

With his face slathered in lemon juice, McArthur Wheeler robbed not one bank on that day in 1995, but two. Law enforcement released surveillance video. By the end of the day, Pittsburg police had their man, incredulous though he was, that such a well-laid plan could have somehow, come off the rails.

That video must have been faked.

Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger got wind of the caper and thought they’d study the episode, a little more closely. PsychologyToday.com tells us: “The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile”.

The article continues: “The Dunning-Kruger effect results in what’s known as a “double curse:” Not only do people perform poorly, but they are not self-aware enough to judge themselves accurately—and are thus unlikely to learn and grow”.

If you’re thinking that explains a lot about certain politicians, you’re probably not alone. And what of the ‘News’? The one thing we all expect whether Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, is accurate information. From our politicians and from our “News” media.

Are we then to believe an industry, merely because it buys ink by the proverbial barrel? After the last few years, I certainly hope not. From the Russia “Collusion” hoax to Fox News’ reporting that President Obama…”at the end of his rope…sent [a] rambling, 75,000-word email to the entire nation” (it was an Onion story), our news and information media have worked overtime to earn the epithet, “Fake News”.

In October 2019, ABC “News” broadcast man-on-the-street video from Syria, depicting an attack by the Turkish military, on Kurdish civilians. ABC later apologized that the video was shot…at a gun range in Kentucky.

In April 2020, CBS did its part to add to the national COVID-19 hysteria, using Italian footage as a stand-in for a story about the failure, of New York hospitals. A month later the company staged lines and faked “patients” at the Cherry Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But hey, it all made for some swell footage, right?

And who can forget NBC’s exploding truck video, concocted at the expense of General Motors. Worried that the crash test might not show the desired result, NBC rigged an incendiary device, just to be sure. The test worked swell and the sight of flaming pickup trucks, sure does make for some great “News”. But rest assured, Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized, concluding that “unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

There’s a knee slapper for you. “Unscientific demonstrations”.

Back to Dunning and Kruger. On this day in 1920, an unsigned editorial in the New York Times, made mockery of none other than Robert Hutchings Goddard. Yeah. THAT Robert Goddard. The guy with the space center, named after him.

Robert Goddard, a man who all but invented the space age, has 214 patents to his name. Two of them, a multi-stage rocket and a liquid-fuel rocket were patented as early as 1914.

On January 13, 1920, the New York Times opined that space flight was an impossibility, because propulsion systems had nothing to push against. Such a position seems defensible in 1920, but the Times just couldn’t resist that snotty, mean-girl touch, replete with sneer quotes: “That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills”. – PsychologyToday.com

“The knowledge ladled out in high schools”. Good one.

In 1932, that same New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for Lying, about the systematic extermination by starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians, by the Soviet government of Josef Stalin. To this day the “Grey Lady” has failed to repudiate that Pulitzer.

The “Newspaper of Record” printed 24,000 front page articles over the course of the second world war but oddly seemed oblivious to the Nazi holocaust, front page articles about which numbered precisely, twenty-six.

Front page, above-the-fold stories ran 44 days in a row about that mess at Abu Ghraib, just in case anyone missed the point. And the Times was certainly quick to defend that Dan Rather memo as Fake but Accurate. Never mind that the font didn’t exist, when the thing was supposed to have been written.

But fear not, the New York Times retracted that 1920 editorial. In July 1969. The day after the Apollo 11 launch. At that rate we can expect those East Anglia stories to come in, around 2050.

September 14, 1972 Fake but Accurate

The political process fails us when those we trust to provide the “news” act as advocates, instead of honest conduits of information.

On September 8, 2004, CBS News aired a 60 Minutes™ program hosted by News Anchor Dan Rather, centered on four documents critical of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service in 1972-‘73.  It was less than two months before the 2004 Presidential election.

The documents were supposed to have been written by Bush’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, who was unavailable for comment.  Lt. Col. Killian passed away, in 1984.

GW-Bush-in-uniformThe documents came from Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a former Texas Army National Guard officer who had received publicity back in 2000, when he claimed to have been transferred to Panama after refusing to falsify then-Governor Bush’s personnel records. Burkett later retracted the claim, but popped up again during the 2004 election cycle. Many considered the man to be an “anti-Bush zealot”.

Within hours of the broadcast, the documents were criticized as forgeries. Internet fora and blogs challenged the terminology and typography of the memos. Within days it came out that the font used in the memos didn’t even exist, at the time the documents were supposed to have been written.

That didn’t stop the Boston Globe from running a story entitled “Authenticity Backed on Bush Documents”, a story it was later forced to retract.

Criticism of the 60 Minutes’ piece intensified, as CBS News and Dan Rather dug in and defended their story. Within the week, Rather was talking to a Daily Kos contributor and former typewriter repairman who claimed that the documents could have been written in the 70s.

danratMeanwhile, the four “experts” used in the original story were publicly repudiating the 60 Minutes piece.

Other aspects of the documents were difficult to authenticate without the originals. CBS had nothing but faxes and photocopies.  Burkett claimed to have burned the originals after faxing them to the network.

The New York Times interviewed Marian Carr Knox, then-secretary to the squadron in 1972, running a story dated September 14 under the bylines of Maureen Balleza and Kate Zernike. The headline read “Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says“.

The story went on to describe the 86 year-old Carr’s recollections that she never typed the memos, but they accurately reflected Lt. Col. Killian’s sentiments. “I think he was writing the memos”, she said, “so there would be some record that he was aware of what was going on and what he (Bush) had done.”

ratherYet Killian’s wife and son had cleared out his office after his death, and neither found anything so much as hinting at the existence of such documents. Others who claimed to know Carr well described her as a “sweet old lady”, but said they had “no idea” where those comments had come from.

CBS News would ultimately retract the story, as it came out that Producer Mary Mapes collaborated on it with the Kerry campaign. Several network news people lost their jobs, including Dan Rather himself, and Mapes.

1101880208_400Public confidence in the “Mainstream Media” plummeted. Many saw the episode as a news network lying, and the “Newspaper of Record” swearing by it.

“Conservative” news sources like PJ Media rose from the ashes of the scandal, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a bunch of bloggers “in their jammies”, had uncovered in a matter of hours, what the vaunted news gathering apparatus of CBS News failed to figure out in weeks.

That the mainstream media “filters” the news, is neither a revelation, nor is it new. In 1932-’33, New York Times reporter Walter Duranty reported on Josef Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, known as “Holodomor”. “Extermination by hunger”. With 25,000 starving to death every day, Duranty won a Pulitzer with such gems as: “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” – (Nov. 15, 1931), and, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” – (Aug. 23, 1933).

The 1993 NBC Dateline “Exploding Truck” edition didn’t get the desired effect when it crash tested General motor’s pickup truck, so the network rigged another with a pyrotechnic device. Sure enough, that one exploded, right on cue. The “Exposé” was pure BS masquerading as “News”, but hey. The explosion made for good television.

In a transparent attack on an administration with which it had political disagreements, the New York Times ran the Abu Ghraib story on the front page, above the fold, for 32 days straight. Just in case anyone might have missed the first 31.

And who can forget that racially incendiary, edited audio from George Zimmermann’s 911 call, or those photoshopped images, of the man’s head. Thank you, NBC.

If the point requires further proof, watch ABC News Charlie Gibson’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin, then read the transcript. Whether you like or don’t like Ms. Palin is irrelevant to the point. The transcript and the interview as broadcast, are two different things.

Fact or Fake concept, Hand flip wood cube change the word, April fools day

As I write, Hurricane Florence makes landfall, on the North Carolina coast.  A storm in which, three days ago, the Washington Post declared President Trump, to be “complicit”.

The political process fails us when those we trust to provide the “news” act as advocates, instead of honest conduits of information. The American system of self-government operates within a marketplace of ideas.  Such a system cannot properly function when those who would be its “watchdogs”, must themselves, be watched.  That may be the worst part of this whole sorry story.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 25, 1898 Newsies

As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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US presidential election results from 1796 to 1820 gives a good idea of partisan press circulation, where Green shaded states usually voted for the Democratic-Republican Party, while brown shaded states supported the Federalist Party

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were “wretched little” sheets in the words of America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Today we hear a lot about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of his time.

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades, at 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

For thousands, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

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Homeless children sleeping in Mulberry Street district of New York, circa 1890

Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

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For that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

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Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, and hundreds of them descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.

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Several days later, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?”

The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted. Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

February_23rd_1908_Boys_Selling_Newspapers_on_Brooklyn_Bridge
Brooklyn newsboys, 1908

Newsies struck the two in 1899, refusing to sell their papers. 5,000 newsboys blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. Competing papers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.  The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite: “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but they did agree to take back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

Long before modern notions of child welfare, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.  “Dutch” Johnson, Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie”, caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious, and he was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed that it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no chance.

“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com for this image

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could have easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers.   Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.  So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and their dimes.  $53.40 bought the plot in Linden Hill Cemetery, with its small stone marker.  Not a plain black wagon and a nameless grave in some Potter’s Field.

 

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 14, 2004  Fake but Accurate

“Conservative” news sources like PJ Media rose in the aftermath, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a bunch of bloggers “in their jammies” uncovered in hours what the vaunted news gathering apparatus of CBS News failed to figure out in weeks.

It was September 8, 2004, less than two months before the 2004 Presidential election.  CBS News aired a 60 Minutes™ broadcast hosted by News Anchor Dan Rather, centered on four documents critical of President George W. Bush’s National Guard service in 1972-‘73.  The documents were supposed to have been written by Bush’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, who’d passed away in 1984.

GW-Bush-in-uniformThe documents came from Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a former Texas Army National Guard officer who had received publicity back in 2000, when he claimed to have been transferred to Panama after refusing to falsify then-Governor Bush’s personnel records.  He later retracted the claim, but popped up again during the 2004 election cycle.  Many considered Burkett to be an “anti-Bush zealot”.

Within hours of the broadcast, the documents were criticized as forgeries.  Internet forums and blogs challenged the terminology and typography of the memos.  Within days it came out that the font used in the memos didn’t exist at the time the documents were supposed to have been written.

That didn’t stop the Boston Globe from running a story entitled “Authenticity Backed on Bush Documents”, a story they later had to retract.

Criticism of the 60 Minutes’ piece intensified, as CBS News and Dan Rather dug in and defended their story.   Within the week, Rather was talking to a Daily Kos contributor and former typewriter repairman who claimed that the documents could have been written in the 70s.  Meanwhile, the four “experts” used in the original story were publicly repudiating the 60 Minutes piece.

Other aspects of the documents were difficult to authenticate without access to the originals.  CBS had nothing but faxes and photocopies, and Burkett claimed to have burned the originals after faxing them to the network.

Fake but AccurateThe New York Times interviewed Marian Carr Knox who’d been secretary to the squadron in 1972, running a story dated September 14 under the bylines of Maureen Balleza and Kate Zernike.  The headline read “Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says“.

The story went on to describe the 86 year-old Carr’s recollections that she never typed the memos, but they accurately reflected the feelings of Lt. Col. Killian.  “I think he was writing the memos”, she said, “so there would be some record that he was aware of what was going on and what he (Bush) had done.”

Yet Killian’s wife and son had cleared out his office after his death, and they didn’t find anything even hinting at the existence of such documents.  Others who claimed to know Carr well described her as a “sweet old lady”, but said they had “no idea” where her statements had come from.

CBS News would ultimately retract the story, as it came out that Producer Mary Mapes collaborated on it with the Kerry campaign.  Several network news people lost their jobs, including Rather and Mapes.

dan-rather-cnnPublic confidence in the “Mainstream Media” plummeted.  Many saw the episode as a news network lying, and the “Newspaper of Record” swearing to it.

“Conservative” news sources like PJ Media rose in the aftermath, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a bunch of bloggers “in their jammies”, uncovered in hours what the vaunted news gathering apparatus of CBS News failed to figure out in weeks.

Such news media bias is nothing new.  In 1932-33, New York Times reporter Walter Duranty reported on Josef Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians, known as “Holodomor”.  “Extermination by hunger”.   With 25,000 starving to death every day, Duranty won a Pulitzer with such gems as:  “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” – (Nov. 15, 1931), and,  “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” – (Aug. 23, 1933).

Walter Duranty

The 1993 NBC Dateline “Exploding Truck” edition didn’t get the desired effect when they crash tested that pickup truck, so they rigged another one with a pyrotechnic device.  Sure enough, that one exploded on cue.  The “Exposé” was fiction masquerading as “News”, but hey.  The explosion made good television.

In a transparent attack on an administration with which it had political disagreements, the New York Times ran the Abu Ghraib story on the front page, above the fold, for 32 days straight.  Just in case anyone missed the first 31.

And who can forget that edited audio from George Zimmermann’s 911 call.  Thank you, NBC.

If the point requires further proof, watch ABC News Charlie Gibson’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin, then read the transcript.  Whether you like or don’t like Ms. Palin is irrelevant to the point.  The transcript and the interview as broadcast, are two different things.

The political process is afflicted when news agencies act as advocates in the stories they cover.  Our system of self-government cannot long survive without an informed electorate.  That may be the worst part of this whole sorry story.

Bill Clintons Cat
Press photographers, in search of the perfect image. Of Bill Clinton’s cat.