Fake news: free speech?

Fake news and a “right to lie”…

Fake News is not new

Fake News: In Battle for Chicago, Wayne Andrews reminds us we have seen it all before.

Many are hurling charges and counter-charges of fake news these days, including the tellers of falsehoods and their apologists themselves. They assert that the First Amendment gives them the right to spread lies. Are we to conclude, as a few have said, that America is on its last legs, about to crumble and fall?

Take heart from history.

Fear not, there have been times just like this in the recent past. At the Lincoln Museum in Springfield Illinois, there is a little exhibit which clearly explains “the complex and messy four-way 1860 presidential campaign to a modern audience,” showing how Tim Russert would have reported Lincoln’s campaign. Plenty of fake news flew  from all sides in that hard-fought race. The lies, vitriol and monstrous charges against Lincoln and counter-charges from his three his opponents camps have a very contemporary ring to them.

Battle for Chicago

In his well-researched and illustrated 1946 history, Battle for Chicago, author and photographer Wayne Andrews recounts the history of Chicago’s great families (Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1946).  He notes that after World War II, Marshall Field III, grandson of the prudent and successful Chicago retailer, purchased available blocks of stock in the tabloid newspaper, the Chicago Sun, which had supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease policy and other progressive moves during the war. Naming himself both publisher and editor, he was determined to expand and amplify the voice of this welcome opponent to the Tribune’s ultra conservative views.

No right to lie

One story typifies the newspaper wars which began in the mid-19th century. Joseph Medill, newspaper owner, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and owner of the New York Daily News,  and retail king Marshall Field held stakes in opposing newspapers and warred over isolationist and progressive views. Their heirs likewise carried these positions forward into the post World War II  era.  Reporter John O’Donnell, of the Joseph Medill Patterson’s  New York Daily News,  oddly twisted the facts when he filed a story of a wartime incident, creating more fake news. He claimed that “the battle-fatigued soldier whose ears were boxed by General Patton during the Sicilian Campaign was a Jew, and that the ‘secret and astoundingly effective might of this Republican’s foreign-born political leaders’ was behind ‘the successful drive to disgrace and remove General Patton from his command.’” He named several high government officials who were behind this movement. About this fake news incident Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia accepted neither O’Donnell’s apology nor Joe Patterson’s excuses. “The whole story,” he said over the radio, “was a mean, deliberate cowardly lie…”  LaGuardia warned the hard-pressed publisher:

“Look here, Patterson, that kind of stuff may go in Chicago, in the Chicago Tribune, but it won’t go for long in New York City. See! We concede the constitutional freedom of speech, we concede the freedom of the press but we do not concede or recognize or know of any constitutional right to lie, to lie about people, to lie about good Americans.”

Fake news: a lesson from history

Recent public speeches by a U. S. senator,  past vice president and two presidents from both sides of the aisle warned of the dangerous  degeneration of public discourse in this country and the retreat by many into opposing tribal camps, unwilling to discuss or compromise. They caution that their nationalistic, xenophobic and bigoted speech is divisive, and destructive to the values of democracy we hold dear. It is also counterproductive to forward-looking legislative solutions to such pressing problems as disaster recovery, rogue aggressor states and long-term economic development.

Our media must keep on struggling against withering attacks of those who would curtail its freedom with their version of “free” speech. and persevere. The media and their social network outlets must report the truth as they see it, debunk fake news and press to be heard among the din of opponents and unregulated, often opinionated social media. To avoid the dire and dangerous  results of this threat to our values and our liberty, we  all must rekindle the torch of civil political discussion and debate.

Until next time, good words to you,


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