Select Page

You hear the words “fake news” and you automatically roll your eyes. The American citizenry is sick and tired of hearing about fake news, from the fact that it exists to its being flung about as a base insult with reckless abandon by politicians all over the political spectrum. Half of our news is stories about fake news, and in general, the American public is over it.

If you can believe it, though, this is not the first time the nation has had to grapple with issues of journalistic integrity pitted against the capitalistic inclination to sell newspapers, goods, and services. As early as the 1890s, the newspapers in the United States swung from reporting the news as it happened, to selling sensationalized tales of events that may or may not have happened. Such tales definitely included love affairs, unbelievable crimes, and grossly exaggerated drama that entranced the public at the expense of informing them of the truth. 

Termed “Yellow Journalism,” intentionally misleading headlines, illustrations, and stories dominated newspapers as reputable as The New York Times. Wildly exaggerated sketches of people committing a farcically ridiculous crime or carrying on an affair were inescapable — think of today’s tabloids, but without all the public knowledge that tabloids exist for entertainment, not necessarily for truth.

One particular man changed the whole entire game of yellow journalism, fake news, and unadulterated professional charlatanry. In his home state of Kansas, with a medical degree from a diploma mill still hot off the press, John R. Brinkley grew in popularity in the 1920s for his famous goat gland procedures. In this process, he would replace the reproductive glands of impotent men with those of virile goats. Simultaneously, Brinkley got his hands on the new technology of the radio. Foreshadowing the relationship between the internet and legislation in the early 2000s, neither the state nor the federal government established parameters in time to stop someone with bad intentions. Brinkley used his incredibly powerful radio to harangue listeners with advertisements for his snake oil, peddle his quack science, and tell them everything they wanted to hear regarding remedies to their maladies.

In time, given his enormous and unrestricted influence on the radio-listening citizens of Kansas, Brinkley attempted a gubernatorial run founded on such populist beliefs as exterminating socialism, giving each town in Kansas its own lake to reduce drought, and providing free medicine to everyone. After failing to win the election on a technicality that only ballots with his name spelled correctly would be counted, Brinkley moved to Texas and in time lost any credibility he had when a trial illuminated his utter lack of medical training or scientific acumen.

The solution to the problem of yellow journalism was not nearly so much a legal one as it was an industry one. Journalists and the entire news industry were being indicted by the public for misleading them and making it difficult to discern the truth from the imagined. Thus, a code of ethics was born, and the American public called on their right to privacy to protect them from what we would call the paparazzi today. Public, internal, and legal pressures bore down so heavily on the industry of journalism that the writers had no choice but to acquiesce to the turning tide of market demands. The lesson here for today’s epidemic of media distrust is to demand them to earn our trust back.