What I’m Reading: Not Exactly Lying, by Andie Tucher

Author: Katlyn Marie Carter

In 2019, I started teaching a new course at Notre Dame, Fake News: A History. The class was designed as a media history, focused on historicizing phenomena like rumors, conspiracy theories and propaganda. In the few semesters I have taught this topic, I’ve concluded that the term “fake news” has come to encompass so much that it risks bordering on meaningless.

Before former president Donald Trump adopted the phrase to describe anything critical of him, it had most recently been deployed to describe the flood of mis- and disinformation on social media, intensified during the 2016 presidential election. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world, the problem of “fake news” could be viewed in two ways: as waves of conspiracy theories and falsehoods on the internet, or that the label itself had become a form of propaganda, used to dismiss true information that didn’t fit a particular viewpoint.

Given the multifaceted interpretations of this societal challenge, I wondered: does the phrase have value anymore?

Not Exactly Lying, a recent book by Andie Tucher, a journalism professor at Columbia University, traces the long history of “fake news” in a way that suggests the term is actually helpful precisely because of its multidimensionality.

Cover of the book Not Exactly Lying, by Andie Tucher, with an image of newsboys of the early 20th century carrying newspapers to sell

As Tucher points out in the book, not only is the perceived problem of “fake news” not new, but the phrase itself has a long history. Tracing the concept of “faking” to the late 19th century, Tucher identifies the initially positive connotations of the practice. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that it was identified as problematic. Following the evolution of “fake news” and its deployment throughout American history provides a window into how we have identified truth and determined whom to trust over time — and the place of journalism in those processes.

After first defining “fake” as something “purposefully untrue,” Tucher precisely defines “news” to narrow her focus to the question of faking within the field of journalism. Doing this allows her to highlight the mutually-dependent relationship between truth and falsehood; in short, her book shows how there is no true news without fake news and vice versa. As she puts it: “An important part of journalism history is thus the story of the clash within journalism between practitioners of the real seeking to defend their profession and perpetrators of the fake working to exploit it.”

Tucher first provides a whirlwind survey of how Americans thought about the role of journalists from the colonial period through the 19th century. The field went from printers claiming to merely reproduce what they heard without discerning true from false, to activists who embraced faking for political causes, to purveyors of commodified information that aimed to ply readers with what they wanted, letting them choose what to believe.

The origins of journalism in America were not about the truth. “Even though editors in the nineteenth century, too, accepted the task of deciding what was news, for them the work did not necessarily also encompass deciding what was true,” Tucher explains. In this context, “faking” was not an operative concept, much less perceived as a problem.

It was war that changed things. As the press reported on the Civil War, the crisis “produced a counterpressure in favor of truthfulness.” The emergency “made clear the stakes when readers didn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t believe their newspapers,” Tucher writes. Once the truth was firmly on the table, so to speak, journalism had to contend with “the fake.”

It’s no coincidence then that the first uses of the term “fake” in reference to journalism crop up in the 1880s. While some of the earliest instances were coming from reporters who boasted about the merits of their fakery, others soon took it up as a critique. In this period, the predominant style of Yellow Journalism — which was often unapologetically fake — gave rise to professionalization and a new sense that the press should discern and dispense truth.

Tucher identifies the emergence in the Jim Crow South of a dynamic eerily similar to what we might recognize today. While “lurid fabrications” bolstered white supremacy in the South and drove violence against Black men, real reporting on this violence by Ida B. Wells was labeled “fake” as a way to associate her “with everything that was greedy, sensational, and untrustworthy about the mass press.”

A battle to define the truth thus played out in a way we might find familiar: “a news organization offered false information to assure its readers that the (truthful) information they disagreed with was false, in the process undermining their readers’ trust in all news organizations except the very one peddling untruths.”

Tucher proceeds into the 20th century, following debates over faking through the introduction of new technologies — from photography to film and radio — and the turbulence of multiple wars. In the case of both technology and war, an initial embrace of fakes (whether it be altered photos and staged films or propaganda in service of a cause) generally resulted in a backlash. When trust in the press was eroded through the proliferation of misinformation, journalists tended to strive to earn credibility as truth-tellers through disavowals of faking.

By the second half of the 20th century, objectivity had attained its status as a journalistic ideal in response to anxiety about the effects of public relations, advertising and propaganda. Soon, however, this attempt to counter the effects of fake news led to distrust in the press as well due to the entrenching of predominant biases and manipulation it allowed powerful people to engage in. Tucher traces how Senator Joseph McCarthy was covered seriously due to the objective journalistic style and the way in which he exploited this to promote himself and simultaneously demonize the press and dismiss criticism as “nothing more than politically motivated lies.” “McCarthyism set the terms that retain their power to this day,” she writes. “Truth is about partisan advantage, not reality.”

This situation became more intractable as distrust of the media blossomed in the 1970s and ‘80s following many prominent mistakes and political manipulation. In the meantime, journalists explored new modes of reporting to move away from objectivity and its pitfalls, only to contribute to undermining “the possibility of an objectively credible journalism.”

It was at this perilous point that 24-hour cable channels entered the fray and the internet democratized the production of “news,” leading to the proliferation of what Tucher calls fake journalism. She singles out Fox News in particular as a new kind of beast: “aggressively partisan” yet “branding itself as straightforward and nonpartisan.” The network “cloaked its opinionated views in the familiar language of fairness and objectivity,” further contributing to the politicization of truth by inviting viewers to simply believe what they agreed with and dismiss everything else as false.

This habit was reinforced through the early 2000s as mainstream news outlets “kept shooting themselves in the foot and undermining their own trustworthiness” with a series of errors and missteps. Trust in journalism and expertise declined precipitously and “accusations of bias, falsehood, and conspiracy lurked at every turn,” as Tucher put it, landing us where we are today.

The idea of truth as the purpose of journalism was born in response to the perception of fake news as a problem. But the firmer the association between journalism and truth became, the more effectively content presented as news could be faked.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that “fake news,” with its many meanings, probably isn’t going anywhere.

Katlyn Marie Carter is an assistant professor of history at Notre Dame, where she teaches classes on colonial and revolutionary America, the American Constitution, and media history. She is the author of Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions (Yale University Press, 2023).