Fit to print

Andie Tucher, Not Exactly Lying: Fake news and fake journalism in American history, Columbia University Press, New York / Chichester, 2022, pp. x and 367.

Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite

Beginning with a quote from Donald Trump, who claimed (wrongly) to have invented the term ‘fake media’, Andie Tucher’s entertaining and thought-provoking new book tracks the long history of deceptions and untruths in American journalism.

There’s no suggestion, though, that things have always been the same. Tucher’s account attends to the specifics of successive different moments, as she carefully tracks the trends and pressures which have shaped standards and expectations across the decades.

In so doing, the author adopts precise definitions so as to disentangle problems which are related but separate, so that what is ‘fake’ in ‘fake news’ are those elements which are ‘purposefully untrue, created by people who understood, at some level and for whatever benign or devious purpose, that what they were saying was false or deceptive’. The broader concept of ‘fake journalism’ denotes ‘the creation and spread of disinformation by institutions pretending to be or acting like news organisations, in forms crafted to look as if they were authentic productions of an independent press’, and as if they were ‘rooted in impartial investigation and rigorous verification’.

She shows that ‘modern’ standards and expectations emerged only in the late 1800s. Prior to that, from the first appearance of a newspaper in America (Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, in Boston, in 1690) readers expected – and got – ‘a hodgepodge of truth, fiction, fakery, partisanship and humbug’. They were invited to ‘enter into a spirited public debate over whether the stories were true or false’, with editors ‘assuring them that they had as much right as even the rich and powerful to make up their own minds’: they had to ‘choose for themselves what to believe’.

Tucher focusses on particular publications and incidents to illustrate shifts in practice, taking in the growth of mass circulation papers in big eastern cities from the 1830s and the Civil War, seen as ‘a journalistic watershed … as reporters competed to deliver the timely and accurate life-and-death news their readers craved’.

Even so, ‘hoaxes, japes and outright fakes’ remained part of newspaper’s fare after 1865. An appalling number of these ‘fakes’ led to murder, being a most dangerous element of the way that ‘the white press in the South’ aggressively supported white supremacy, with ‘lurid fabrications about “unspeakable” crimes committed against white women by “bestial” Black men’. Such ‘reports’ routinely ‘included calls to lynch the alleged attacker’.

Each chapter of Not Exactly Lying is shaped by clearly written accounts of key developments: efforts to establish high standards and codes of ethics in the 1890s and the early 1900s; disagreements over the reliability or ‘realistic’ character of photography; the challenges resulting from broadcasts over the unregulated ‘ether’ during the early years of radio; journalists’ responses to the challenges of the First World War, and debates about their responsibilities in relation to conflict.

The text is studded with fascinating details, such as that the interview, when it first emerged in the 1830s, was widely seen as a particularly unreliable and distasteful form, ‘the dodgiest aspect of the whole brazen and disruptive enterprise of reporting … rude and intrusive’. Tucher points out that ‘propaganda’ only got ‘a bad name’ during the First World War, shifting what had previously been ‘a generally innocuous term referring to the organisation of mass information into a synonym for manipulation and deceit by instruments of power’. She underlines the serious negative consequences: ‘in 1943, a high-level British intelligence official dismissed reports that the Nazis were gassing Poles to death because … “the accounts remind me of the employment of human corpses during the last war for manufacture of fat, which was a grotesque lie and led to true stories of German enormities being brushed aside as being mere propaganda”’.

Tucher’s route through the post-war decades takes in a thoughtful analysis of how journalism was affected by McCarthyism. ‘The senator clearly intended his assaults’ on a range of journalists ‘not just to intimidate the “left-wing” press but also to undermine its authority and credibility in the public’s eyes. In a manoeuvre that has only grown more familiar since the 1950s, readers were being given permission, by a public figure who spoke their language, to dismiss legitimate coverage of controversial issues as nothing more than politically motivated lies’.

She identifies important issues arising from the way that ‘New Journalists’ in the 1970s ‘embraced subjectivity and individuality as their hallmarks’. That ‘their professional boundary work consisted of vocally rejecting boundaries completely’ is arguably one of the ways in which some aspects of the ‘permissive’ and ‘counter-cultural’ decade opened space for the assaults on intelligence and reason which have been central to the growth of right-wing populism.

These assaults included the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ which, in 1998, Hillary Clinton famously claimed was working against her husband: as Tucher says, ‘she wasn’t wrong’, though ‘not all of the opposition came from the right and not all was conspiratorial’. Tucher’s account of recent dynamics in the polarisation of American politics and the associated degradation of public discourse covers the role of Fox News, President Bush’s warmongering response to 9/11, Trump’s claims that Obama was not born in the USA, and Trump’s subsequent achievement of making ‘more than thirty thousand “false or misleading claims” in public during his four years in office.

The resulting situation is summed up by Tucher in a simple response to two urgent questions: ‘isn’t fake news worse now than it’s ever been? Isn’t it posing unprecedented dangers to democracy and public life?’


Tucher’s concluding pages do not offer any easy answers to the crisis she describes. Nevertheless, her book itself is an example of the well-considered contributions that hundreds of public intellectuals in the USA continue to make to defending liberal values and evidencing the importance of reasoned deliberation. And peoples’ determination to counter the harms and distress caused by liars and conspiracy theorists continues to lead to positive developments. The humiliation of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in a Texas courtroom this month may only be a small and fragile victory, already being countered and misrepresented by Jones and his supporters. But it shows that it is possible to work for the steady rebuilding of standards of public discourse, including through inhibiting others from indulging in the kind of outrageous material and views which Jones has promoted through his website and social media.

Review published August 2022.

Illustration: It’s widely ‘known’ that Orson Wells’s October 1938 CBS radio dramatization of a ‘Martian invasion’ led to ‘national panic’, an episode which ‘has often been invoked as an emblem of popular gullibility in an anxious time’. According to Andie Tucher, the really significant ‘fake’ component of The War of the Worlds ‘fiasco’ was ‘the journalistic response to the allegedly faked news’ of the spaceships landing: ‘the durable story of the mass hysteria described by the New York Times and dozens of other papers was extravagantly exaggerated’.