Journalism has a long history of 'fake news'

Baltimore was home to one of the most skeptical minds in the annals of journalism: H. L. Mencken, who made a career as a skeptic who could spin a yarn. So, in his honor, it's with a skeptic's eye that we should approach the idea that "fake news" is causing irreparable damage to our country. And in honor of an another American journalism icon.

Born in Hungary in 1847, this individual immigrated to America in 1864 to fight as a mercenary in our civil war for $200. Following the war, he moved to New York City, where he quickly found himself penniless and homeless. He traveled around the country in boxcars before eventually landing up in St. Louis. He often had trouble holding jobs, feeling manual labor was beneath him and he was "too temperamental to take orders." He spoke three languages, but none of them was English.


Eventually, he renounced his Hungarian citizenship and became a naturalized citizen. He committed to learning English and trained as a lawyer. He passed the bar. But his broken English undermined his credibility, and his law career foundered. He briefly held public office. But his political career went south when he shot a political adversary on the legislative floor. This all happened before his 23rd birthday.

He took a job with a German language newspaper and toiled in anonymity for a number of years. But the kid was a hustler, and he started climbing the ladder. He married the daughter of former slave owners who shared a bloodline with Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy.


Leveraging his newfound wealth, he bought and merged two newspapers to create the St. Louis Dispatch in 1879. After selling the paper in 1883, he moved to New York and bought the failing New York World newspaper. He grew its circulation from a modest 15,000 to 600,000 readers. In modern terms, this would be a circulation 300 times larger than the current New York Times.

How did he grow the paper so substantially? Partially with "fake news." He's widely co-credited with bringing yellow journalism mainstream. In fact, the New York World's causal relationship with accuracy is partially credited with causing the Spanish American war. Why a war? Because war is great for circulation.

With the war drawing new readers, the New York World raised the price it charged its newspaper hawkers for papers. The hawkers were a force made up almost exclusively of child labor. Of course when the war ended and circulation receded, the children expected the price of the newspapers to return to pre-war levels. They didn't, and the children went on strike. He tried to break the strike by hiring adults. But, the adults sided with the child labor force over the New York World.

So what would H.L. Mencken think of this individual? Would he wish to silence his voice in the name of journalistic honesty? Actually we need not guess Mencken's opinion of him. Mencken wrote that the man was erratic, cruel and prone to "curious streaks of cowardice." But he also said "the extravagances of the comedian never obscure the fact that the workings of a truly brilliant mind were hidden in them."

The man — Joseph Pulitzer — "at his worst, was still a fellow of gigantic force and originality, and of very real dignity," Mencken wrote.

Despite the shooting, the child labor, the advent of yellow journalism — Pulitzer was an iconic citizen of these United States, and today his name is synonymous with excellence in journalism. He was an extraordinary journalist who is often credited with defining modern investigative journalism. He was an ardent populist who fought for the little guy from the ivory tower his wealth provided him. His papers trained their wrath on private companies and government corruption with dignity, ferocity and zeal. His newspapers introduced comics, while offering a level of artistry that few today would recognize.

Today, the rifts in our nation are real. The media industry, however you define that, has done the country and itself few favors in getting to this point. But the truth is almost always nuanced, and it's up to the individual to distinguish between opinion, fact and fiction. Fake news isn't new. But the ramifications of censorship could wind up cost us much more than a few fake news stories.

Dan Reed is a resident of Baltimore City and registered Libertarian. He can be reached at