The malleability of language is evident in the rapidly changing meaning of fake news.
In its early manifestation, the term was used, primarily by the Left, to describe the process by which “news” was invented or fabricated to facilitate online clicks and the revenue they engender. For example, the (false) story, in the lead-up to the US election, that Pope Francis was supporting Republican Party candidate Donald J. Trump was dismissed as fake news by Trump’s opponents.
However, it was not long before the term was flipped by commentators on the Right of American politics. Some described the strong support of the left-liberal media (MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post) for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and its opposition to Trump as leading to an onslaught of fake news hostile to the latter.
It was not long before Trump embraced the term. In a lively media conference on January 11, he described the unsubstantiated story that he had been caught in a compromising position with Russian prostitutes, which was initially run by BuzzFeed, as garbage.
He described CNN, which had first reported the existence of allegations damaging to Trump, as engaging in fake news.
Soon afterwards in Australia, Resources Minister Matt Canavan described the ABC’s critical coverage of the proposed Adani mine in north Queensland as amounting to fake news.
The term may well change again in the months and years ahead. Or it may become an expression that once had a specific meaning but is now used to describe someone you do not like or with whom you disagree.
Recently, author Don Watson, who once worked as Paul Keating’s speechwriter, described Trump as a “fascist”. In her regular appearances on Sky News, former Liberal Party minister Bronwyn Bishop depicts her opponents as “socialist”.
Once upon a time, the word fascist applied to a particular kind of right-wing dictatorship. Namely, Benito Mussolini’s regime in Italy in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. And socialism described social democratic administrations that embraced cradle-to-grave welfare and large-scale government ownership. Namely, Clement Attlee’s Labour government in postwar Britain. Today such words are used frequently as terms of abuse.
It could come to pass that reference to fake news means information someone does not want to know about. The term was not around in the 30s. However, such an expression would have been apposite with respect to British-born New York Times journalist Walter Duranty’s coverage of Joseph Stalin’s communist regime in the Soviet Union.
Then, as now, seemingly irreverent journalists just loved receiving the acclaim of their peers through awards. In 1932, Duranty won the prestigious Pulitzer prize for articles published in The New York Times between June and December 1931 on the Soviet Union. In 1934, Duranty agreed to his journalism on Stalin’s Soviet Union being produced in book form by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz under the title Russia Reported.
As Sally J. Taylor documented in her book Stalin’s Apologist (OUP, 1990), Duranty knew of the repression by Moscow’s communist totalitarian regime. He refrained from reporting the truth since he wanted to retain access to the Soviet Union.
Duranty also had a special interest in keeping Stalin onside, having achieved the scoop of interviewing the dictator in person.
Duranty won the Pulitzer for journalism filed before Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine — which occurred in 1932-33 and led to the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens. But the award was given when Stalin’s death-inducing land collectivisation was under way and, in any event, the Bolsheviks’ repression commenced in 1917.
Moreover, Duranty allowed the publication of Russia Reported in 1934, even though he knew that the section of the book on land collectivisation was wilfully false.
The fact is that Duranty was a liar who rationalised his reporting by believing what he wanted to believe.
Another British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, visited the Soviet Union in the early 30s for the Manchester Guardian. In Winter in Moscow (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1934) Muggeridge wrote the truth as he saw it. Unlike Duranty, he did not report what the Soviet regime wanted him to write.
In 2003, the Pulitzer prize board decided not to revoke Duranty’s award despite acknowledging that “Duranty’s 1931 work, measured by today’s standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short”.
The board claimed, however, that “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception”. This was a cop-out. In fact, Duranty’s reporting fell seriously short of foreign reporting standards then and now. The evidence of Taylor’s research suggests that The New York Times’ man in Moscow was into deliberate deception — what today could be called fake news.
In its current usage, fake news covers reportage that is deemed to have been intended to influence domestic politics. But Duranty’s award-winning journalism reminds us that deception is not confined to nation-states.
The left intelligentsia in Australia (and elsewhere) has an appalling record in reporting communist regimes. The likes of writer Frank Hardy, feminist Jessie Street and novelist Katharine Susannah Prichard lauded Stalin’s Soviet Union in the spoken word and in print. Hardy saw the light in 1968 and denounced Stalin’s heirs. But Street and Prichard died committed Stalinists. So did Bill and Freda Brown (Greens NSW senator Lee Rhiannon’s parents).
In 2014 the journalist Wilfred Burchett was admitted to the Victorian Media Hall of Fame at the Melbourne Press Club. He was cited for reporting on the aftermath of the nuclear bomb dropped by the US on Hiroshima in August 1945, towards the end of the World War II.
No one talked about Burchett’s deceptive 1951 book People’s Democracies, in which he barracked for all the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and traduced the courageous opponents of Stalin.
The left intelligentsia’s coverage of Mao Zedong’s China (in which close to 50 million died as a direct result of Mao’s policies) was equally deceptive.
And left-wing academics rarely reported human rights abuses in Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam or even Pol Pot’s Cambodia (before Vietnam’s invasion of 1979).
The term fake news is fresh. But there is nothing new in fabricated reporting.