Author: Jonathan Rauch

Why Fake News Flourishes: Emitting Mere Information Is Easy, But Creating Actual Knowledge Is Hard

In America’s founding era, journalism was notoriously partisan and unreliable. Almost anyone could open a newspaper, and almost anyone did. Standards were low to nonexistent. “Editors and promoters, however much they proclaimed their loyalty to truth, more often than not were motivated by partisan political goals and commercial interests in the sensational,” writes the historian Barbara J. Shapiro. Newspapers did not scruple to publish what today we call fake news. In 1835, the New York Sun published bogus reports of life on the Moon; in 1844, it published a fake story—­by one Edgar Allan Poe—­about a transatlantic hot-air-balloon journey. Fake news was not always harmless. Benjamin Franklin complained that “tearing your private character to flitters” could be done by anyone with a printing press. Press freedom, he groused, had come to mean “the liberty of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another.” At the Constitutional Convention, Elbridge Gerry, a prominent politician, observed bitterly that the people “are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions, by the false reports circulated by designing men, and which …