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  • Elizabeth Alexander

The Duping of (and by) Journalists

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

It was one of those lucky finds that always makes me think, as a writer, that I’m on the right track. No sooner had I decided to make the protagonist of Lies That Blind an aspiring journalist, I chanced upon the 1758 essay by Dr Samuel Johnson entitled Of The Duty of a Journalist.

Having been a journalist myself for over 30 years, and a consumer of their work in newspapers and magazines for much longer, it seemed to me that what Johnson was pointing out almost three centuries ago was similar to the “fake news” and obsession with gossip portrayed as “news” that we suffer from today.

I won’t go through the whole essay, which you can read in its entirety on the website of Professor Jack Lynch of Rutgers University who is an expert on Johnson, along with themes woven throughout Lies That Blind that include fakery and fraud:

Let’s just review a few of the essay's passages:

Johnson starts out with a clear castigation of the journalism profession:

“…the present state of many of our papers is such, that it may be doubted not only whether the compilers know their duty, but whether they have endeavoured or wished to know it.”

The “duty” of which he writes is “an obligation to tell truth.” The problem being, Johnson recognises, that even the most honest of journalists have a tendency to deceive because:

“He is obliged to transmit the earliest intelligence before he knows how far it may be credited; he relates transactions yet fluctuating in uncertainty; he delivers reports of which he knows not the authors.”

Sound familiar?

Even in the mid-18th century, readers wanted news stories at the earliest possible opportunity. So journalists, in Johnson’s language, “sometimes be hurried down the current of a popular clamour.”

When journalists and editors make a mistake, or discover that they’ve been deceived into duping their readers, they could issue a clear retraction. Sadly, writes Johnson:

“This is not much to be required, and yet this is more than the writers of news seem to exact from themselves.”

Today's consumers of news, let alone the so-called journalists that peddle falsehoods, haven’t changed all that much. It seems that juicy stories spread by word of mouth—accepted by gospel by our friends, for example, and passed along as such—were as likely to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker 260+ years ago as they are spread today via social media by virtual “friends” on Twitter, Facebook and the like.

As S Shyam Sundar put it in this The New Republic article of 2016:

“We can’t distinguish between real news and fake news because we don’t even question the credibility of the source of news when we are online. Why would we, when we think of ourselves or our friends as the source?”

In which case, the worst of the profession have no incentive to be credible. It took the wily Mr. John Nichols, editor of The Gentleman’s Magazine, and an actual historical character, to help dispel the gossip about General George Washington being a woman in disguise (see Chapter Two of Lies that Blind and my blog post entitled The Ruse of the Independent Woman).

There are numerous examples today of so-called news sources pandering to their advertisers and, to maintain their viewing or readership figures, putting out whatever they think will satisfy people’s curiosity. Several centuries ago, at a time when you would imagine life was lived at a slower pace, when folks had time to digest newspapers and literary magazines and could deliberate longer on whether or not what they were being told was “true,” the same problem seems to have existed:

Writes Johnson:

“It must surely sometimes raise indignation to observe with what serenity of confidence they (journalists) relate on one day, what they know not to be true, because they hope that it will please; and with what shameless tranquillity they contradict it on the next day, when they find that it will please no longer.
“How readily they receive any report that will disgrace our enemies, and how eagerly they accumulate praises upon a name which caprice or accident has made a favourite. They know, by experience, however destitute of reason, that what is desired will be credited without nice examination: they do not therefore always limit their narratives by possibility, but slaughter armies without battles, and conquer countries without invasions.”

(You will recognise that final line in Chapter Two of Lies That Blind.)

Johnson published this essay more than 260 years ago, yet what he writes still has a familiar ring to it:

“Accounts are sometimes published of robberies and murders which never were committed, men’s minds are terrified with fictitious dangers, the public indignation is raised, and the government of our country depreciated and contemned.”

Johnson had much more to say, but I think you get the gist. No matter how much we like to think we're more sophisticated than people living in the past, it seems we're no better at consuming what the New York Times likes to boast is, All the news that's fit to print. We certainly don't appear to be any more skilled at carefully analysing and thinking deeply about whether or not what we're reading is any closer to the "truth" than people in Samuel Johnson's day!

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