" Just Oppinion " Author Q&A on the Birth of ‘Fake News’ a Century Ago

Author Q&A on the Birth of ‘Fake News’ a Century Ago

John Maxwell Hamilton,

John Maxwell Hamilton, author of  “Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda” (LSU Press), discussed his new book with RealClearPolitics.

So “Fake News” isn’t something Donald Trump invented, is it? The phrase has been thrown around for a long time, predating Trump’s presidency by exactly 100 years.

More than a hundred years. A small book was published in 1914 on the subject, “Fakes in American Journalism.” An 1897 book exposing sensational reporting of the Spanish-American War was called “Facts and Fakes About Cuba.” In World War I, as today, the term “fake news” and its equivalents were put to many uses, some of them, paradoxically, to promote falsehoods.

The Committee on Public Information, President Wilson’s wartime propaganda agency and the subject of my book, discredited information that ran counter to the administration’s point of view by calling it “enemy talk.” It added weight to this by trying to convince Americans that spies lurked everywhere, spreading pernicious information. By the way, only one, rather dopey spy, was apprehended and found guilty.

Meanwhile journalists leveled charges of “fake news” against the CPI, although the term they favored was “creeling.” This was in reference to the hyperkinetic head of the CPI, George Creel. Today the word we use for this is “spinning.”

Professor, I happen to know that you were researching this topic before Trump entered politics, but I’ll hazard a guess that when he popularized the phrase “Fake News,” you weren’t sorry. When did you realize that you had more than an academic book on your hands — that this is a subject every political practitioner, historian, and journalist is obliged to know?

I knew the subject was relevant when I started. The CPI was our first and only ministry of propaganda. It only lasted for the duration of the war. But its techniques and mindset lived on. I wanted to show how easy it is for a president to push the boundaries of propaganda. I found more abuse than I expected – the use of front organizations and other forms of deception, coercion, highly emotional appeals that promoted hatred and fear, to name a few of those abuses.

And then, out of nowhere, in the middle of my research, President Trump appeared to illustrate the point I was making on the ease with which boundaries can be pushed. He has, from first to last, aggressively appropriated the trappings of the presidency to enlarge the Trump brand, down to putting his name on coronavirus relief checks and playing “Hail to the Chief” while he declared, inaccurately, that he won the election.

What would gratify me most with regard to this book is if it elevates awareness of the danger that lies in the power the president has to propagandize and if it prompts steps to fence back those powers.

Your new book documents the practice of disseminating premeditated propaganda to the American people to the First World War. Yet, your prologue is set in 2003, during the second U.S.-Iraq war. Do you think U.S. presidents feel more entitled to deceive the American people during wartime?

Government leaders were cognizant of the importance of public opinion before the war and sought to sell themselves and their ideas. But their approaches were as primitive as trepanning is for brain surgery. The Great War accelerated the search for means to use and bypass the news media to shape thoughts. The war – the first total war – required national mobilization of matériel and minds. By the end of the war governments had become much more sophisticated about mass manipulation, and propaganda was an established part of governing, as well as business.

War has, ever since, accelerated improvements, if that is the right word, in propaganda. This is for an obvious reason. Wars are a matter of urgent national security, or at any rate they are waged based on that belief. Just as ammunition manufacturers ramp up production and improvise when war occurs, so do propagandists. They believe that nothing is more important than winning and that means getting public opinion behind the war. And, yes, that means taking shortcuts to keep people in line. At the end of the war, in a great moment of clarity, George Creel said in a speech to Chicagoans, “With the existence of democracy itself at stake, there was no time to think about the details of democracy.”

In his excellent book, “When Presidents Lie,” Eric Alterman details how presidents often shade the truth — not to protect troop movements and the like — but to stage-manage public opinion into empowering them to launch wars. Early on in your own narrative, you point out how French officials imposed news blackouts in the fateful first week of August 1914. Their aim was to eliminate coverage sympathetic to a peaceful resolution of Europe’s crisis. It’s almost too profound to contemplate the suffering and carnage that could have been spared had World War I been avoided, isn’t it?

British Prime Minister Lloyd George acknowledged after the war that if journalists had revealed the carnage on the battlefields, the public’s demand for early peace would have been irresistible. There are very good arguments why an earlier peace, one that did not have one side winning overwhelmingly, would have led to a fairer peace, which would have lessened the likelihood of a second world war. There was another long-term consequence of the suppression of information during the war. We often mark the Vietnam War, and the attendant withholding of facts, as the point at which the public started to become deeply cynical about the government. But this process started in World War I. Large elements of the public felt they had been tricked. Frank Cobb, the well-respected editor of the New York World, helped the administration with propaganda during the war. Afterward he rued that government propaganda had “goose-stepped” public opinion. And he feared what would come next. “God forbid,” he cautioned, “that our supreme achievement in the War should be the Prussianizing of ourselves.”

“Manipulating the Masses” begins before the United States entered the war in 1917. You remind us that during the 1916 presidential election year in the United States, German propaganda was so heavy-handed that it backfired — it helped get Woodrow Wilson reelected — while the British propagandists demonstrated great caution and restraint, but only for tactical reasons. Although we live in less-subtle times, foreign powers are still trying to influence U.S. public opinion, aren’t they?

Disinformation and other foreign meddling with public opinion has become a threat to national security in the same way that terrorism and nuclear proliferation are. Dealing with this threat is as high a priority. It must be acknowledged, too, that as much as we decry this activity by other countries, we do it ourselves to many of them.

Interference like this is a large part of the CPI story. British archives are full of notes in which officials lamented that they are ingénues in the arts of propaganda and that the Germans were brilliantly insidious. British officials sincerely believed this, but, really, they were the ones who were brilliant and insidious, not least of all at persuading opinion leaders in the United States to favor British interests.

Once the United States went into the war, the CPI actively sought to shape public opinion in allied, neutral, and enemy countries. It was not above using surreptitious methods, including the secret subsidization of news.

Ironically, the CPI was suckered into a White Russian disinformation scheme that prefigures the similar disruptions today. The duping of the CPI is a complicated story, as disinformation plots always are, but briefly it goes like this: White Russians faked documents to portray the Bolshevik leaders as German agents who therefore had no legitimacy. These documents were fed to Edgar Sisson, a senior CPI official in Russia, who brought them to Washington. The CPI successfully rammed them down the throats of American media.

The Wilson administration, which did not recognize the Bolshevik government, welcomed the Sisson Documents, as they came to be called, because they justified its decision to violate Russian sovereignty by joining in an Allied invasion of Russia. Few Americans today are aware of this invasion, but the Russians remember it. The Sisson Documents fueled Soviet-American animosity, and they fueled the Red Scare in the United States. They are a powerful example of the dangers that lie in what we call today “confirmation bias,” that is to say, the  eagerness people have to embrace fake news that confirms what they want to believe.

Back to Wilson’s reelection in 1916. Tell our readers a little bit about Robert Woolley, who headed the publicity bureau of the Democratic National Committee.

Robert Woolley has not received the historical attention he deserves. It is difficult to see how Wilson could have won without him. Woolley had been a newspaperman, Senate aide, and longtime Democratic political operative. At the start of the campaign it was generally agreed that the victor would be Republican Charles Evans Hughes. Woolley helped Wilson eke out a victory by changing the way campaign publicity was done. He started on the campaign very early, prefiguring the continuous campaign cycle that now exists. Then, as the Republicans acknowledged afterward, Woolley expertly managed the flow of information to the press and the public. Roosevelt credited him with “the most brilliant achievement in the history of American politics.”

Woolley is important to the CPI story for two reasons. First, his publicity bureau became the test kitchen for the CPI. Woolley’s deputy, incidentally, was Creel. Second, and related to this, this episode established a pattern in which the way one uses information to win election shapes how one governs. Consider President Barack Obama, who harnessed social media in his presidential campaign. In office, he created an Office of Digital Strategy to reach the public directly via social media. More than half the staff had worked on an Obama presidential campaign.

One final point, if I may. I think Hughes would have been a better president than Wilson. This is certainly the case as it relates to free speech. Later, as chief justice of the Supreme Court, he led the way on privileging the First Amendment. Wilson subverted it.

Realizing that Woolley’s grandson is Chuck Robb, who was both governor and senator from Virginia – and Lyndon Baines Johnson’s son-in-law — who in modern American politics does Woolley bring to mind?

This is a difficult question. Maybe David Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and ardent Democrat who helped President Obama with communications strategy. He has attested to the point I made above about the link between campaigning and governing. Regarding the selling of the Iran nuclear agreement, which deftly and controversially used social media, he said the administration “approached these major foreign-policy challenges as campaign challenges, and they’ve run campaigns, and those campaigns have been very sophisticated.”

In 2020, conservatives — and a handful of old-school journalists — complained that the mainstream media essentially censored news unfavorable to Joe Biden, especially regarding his son Hunter’s shady business machinations in Ukraine and China. Although the establishment news outlets scoffed at the very idea that they were censoring news, a reader of your book might think, ‘They’ve been doing it for more than a century.’ I’m thinking now of George Creel, the evil genius at the center of your story. A well-known Midwestern muckraker in 1916, he essentially lobbies the Wilson administration for the job of being chief censor. What motivated Creel, who’d made his name as a muckraker?

George Creel was, through and through, a fighter. He had a bulldog face and spoke through clenched teeth. He was one of the more colorful members of that group of journalists whom we call muckrakers. Muckrakers spoke frankly of seeking to clarify public opinion by providing the sunlight of fact. They often chose political sides when they thought those sides would lead to better government. It was an easy call for them in general and Creel in particular to join the CPI. They would help the public understand. The problem was that these trust busters created a government information-trust that inevitably became an instrument of the administration. Creel, a longtime supporter of Wilson, fought to get the job, using his connection with the secretary of the Navy, newspaperman Josephus Daniels, whom he had defended from criticism during the 1916 election. Creel was a poor choice to head the CPI given the ease with which his emotions ran amuck.

So Creel is put in charge of something called the Committee on Public Information. What did the CPI do exactly?

The CPI had no plan to begin with. But it had energy. Creel was correct when he said, “There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ.”

The CPI shot propaganda though every capillary in the American bloodstream. It was a publishing conglomerate, with a daily newspaper, pamphlets, news services at home and overseas, syndicated stories and cartoons, and thousands of press releases. The CPI made prepackaged news a quotidian aspect of governing.

CPI advertisements were ubiquitous in newspapers and magazines. Families watched CPI-produced films in theaters across the country. Its Division of Pictorial Publicity produced nearly 1,500 poster designs, cards, advertisements, seals, and buttons for 98 agencies and committees. The CPI distributed tens of thousands of slides taken by the military.

The CPI was creative in enlisting the motion picture industry, advertising associations, universities, and others who could give it pathways into American homes and minds. The Boy Scouts, traveling salesmen, and corporate titans did the CPI’s bidding.

Did CPI suppress speech as well as disseminate the official government line?

We often think of propaganda one dimensionally, as only the provision of information. But if one is eager to shape thoughts, it is essential to suppress information that challenges the beliefs you instill in the public’s mind.

When the CPI was created, the idea was that it would handle censorship, which Wilson expected to be enacted in a law as all-encompassing as the British Defence of the Realm Act. Congress would not go this far. The military, the Post Office, and the Justice Department did get legal powers to control speech. The CPI had referred power from these entities to censor. Beyond that, the CPI did what it could to bully the press to conform. Because the government could block periodicals from the mail, refuse use of the cables, withhold newsprint, and close movie theaters – and because Creel was seen as so influential in such decisions – he had considerable bullying power.

There are other several villains in your story, besides Creel. A hero here and there, too, including the now-forgotten Vira Boarman Whitehouse. What drew you to her story?

Not all propaganda is bad, and Vira Whitehouse shows us why. One of the CPI’s great contributions was to conceive public diplomacy. They did not use that term, but they understood the value of reaching the man and woman on the street overseas. This can be very useful in building goodwill abroad, if it is done honestly. But embassies at the time did not want it done at all. They thought this was a waste of time and if something like it was done, it should be done clandestinely.

Whitehouse was wealthy and beautiful, and she was tough. She led the successful drive in 1917 to win the right for women to vote in New York. Creel, who was an ardent supporter of the suffrage movement, sent Whitehouse to Switzerland where the legation gave her a reception as chilly as the Alps. Allen Dulles, who was starting his career, suggested that she pose as a journalist rather than work openly. She declined and became so fed up with the embassy’s resistance that she returned home and took the matter up personally with Wilson. To the amazement of many, including Creel, she prevailed and returned to Bern. At the end of the war, Dulles said, “Mrs. Whitehouse – I am frank to admit – is doing good work, much better than I had thought possible. She is having a real influence in placing American news in the Swiss press and is in touch with a great many influential Swiss. … The influence of America in Switzerland is tremendous now.” This, however, did not stop Dulles from using journalists for intelligence gathering and spreading false information when he became head of the CIA many years later.

In 2020, Facebook and other social media firms were concerned about how political speech, some of which included false or misleading information, would be weaponized by the geometric nature of communications in the Digital Age. But a century ago, George Creel organized the “Four Minute Men” to accomplish a similar aim. This army of 75,000 amateur orators delivered speeches in union halls, churches, synagogues, and social clubs to tens of millions of Americans. Is there anything sinister about this kind of thing — then or now?

I would not use the word “sinister.” But I would say that the Four Minute Men had a sleight-of-hand quality to them. These speakers were leading citizens of their community. They were trusted. This apparent grassroots authenticity, however, was carefully orchestrated by Washington. The speakers were given new topics every few days, for instance, to urge people to buy war bonds, donate their binoculars to the Navy, and look out for spies. The speakers were given canned speeches. Guidance was so detailed that Washington told state chairmen how to run meetings with their local chairmen. Speakers were monitored by local leaders and local leaders were monitored by state leaders, and – well, you get the idea.

Last question, Jack. Knowing that our own government has been putting its thumb on the scales of public opinion for 104 years and counting, what do tell your journalism students at LSU about handling government-provided information? What advice would you give in this regard to working journalists covering American politics at this contentious crossroads of American history?

I am deeply troubled by trends in journalism. We can blame the Trump administration for perverting the White House press conferences. But the press has done its part to turn them into circuses as a result of reporters viewing them as an opportunity to get attention for themselves. Some exceptional reporting is being done by print and broadcast journalists, but too often the press shows its bias not only in story selection but also in the way reporters characterize events. It is disturbing to me that some journalists on our most esteemed newspapers say neutral journalism is old-fashioned.

This is not so, and it is not what our school at Louisiana State University teaches students. We teach them to give the government a fair shake but also question and probe. We provide tools to do this. For instance, we teach them how to interpret data. The house of journalism is diverse. We have room for pundits and analysts. But an enormous portion of that house must be a space for straight, unembroidered reporting. That kind of reporting shows respect for democracy. Democracy privileges process. It presupposes that open, fact-based deliberation ensures better outcomes.

The story of the CPI is a story of good men and women who lost their way when they worked for the government. As I said earlier, there is much we can do to put boundaries around the power of government to use our tax dollars to tell us what to think. But journalists have to police themselves. And that policing should begin in journalism classrooms in order that it may more readily carry on in newsrooms.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.