British Truth and American Lies? March 14, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
If you look through the American press from the 1800s you will sometimes come across outrageous stories about ghostly happenings, about strange sightings and about impossible creatures. The most famous example of this is, of course, the moon hoax of 1835. In Britain you have similarly outrageous stories about, say, fairy encounters, about sea serpents and about ‘hicks’ doing unlikely things with century-old traditions. But there is an important difference. The American newspapers sometimes fabricate, the British papers never do: at least in the sample of stories I have come across. Here it is probably important to ask what is meant by ‘fabrication’. A news story can be fabricated in one of three ways.
(i) The witness invents the story
(ii) The journalist invents the story
(iii) The editor invents the story
(i) and (ii) are perennial problems and are often beyond detection. But (iii) is a different matter. If an editor invents the story then he or she will invariably name a town or a village and people. Facts can be checked: particularly in the internet age. Deception will rapidly be run to ground. There are many cases in American newspapers where stories appear to have been invented: Chris Woodyard has given examples in her writing. But, again, I’ve not found a single example in a British newspaper of the same practice: at worst a British newspaper has taken a story from abroad and copied it without caring to or without being able to check details. Just yesterday I ran across, in a British scientific publication, an account of a five-foot spider that lived in the roofing of a church in Lisbon…
Always assuming that there really is a difference here – drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – the question must be ‘why’? Three possible reasons jump to mind.
British Prigishness: first, in the nineteenth century the Americans took themselves less seriously than their rather sanctimonious British cousins: all that nonsense about opinion is free, facts are sacred just didn’t bother American editors in search of better readership figures. The moon hoax alluded to above would never have happened in the UK in 1835: though perhaps in the eighteenth century? There would have been outrage. This is the side of American culture represented by Twain and Poe, which has no easy British equivalent.
A Small Island: Second, Britain was, in the 1800s, a more intimate place with gazetters of towns and villages so facts could rapidly be checked up upon: the US was a vast territory and if you set a phantom story on frontier state many hundreds of miles away the chances are no one would cotton on without hours of letter-writing and research. In Brighton or Bath or Bristol in the UK at least one of your readers would choke over breakfast if you started telling tall stories about the ‘distant’ Scottish Lowlands. Britain also had considerably less scope for giant worms living in the ‘wilderness’ or ‘Welsh-speaking tribes’ in Orkney.
Faking Means: Third, the typical modus operandi for editorial fakes favoured the US. A prime nineteenth-century practice in newspapers in Britain and the US was to copy a story from another newspaper, which was then often, in turn, copied by another newspaper, sometimes with and sometimes without the point of origin: often there is an echo box effect where the original is lost. If you faked a story you ascribed it to someone else and then put it in your own newspaper. Even if someone did write to say ‘nonsense’ you could always blame the editor of the distant Portland Gazette. In Britain there were though fewer papers (?), more stable titles and state attempts to collect papers into library collections. Checking was easier.
What about the Dominions? Were South African and Canadian papers closer to US or to British mentalities in this period?
16 March 2014: Chris writes ‘Your post on British Truth and American Lies was a revelation! I don’t have the access to UK papers I ought to have (I can barely cope with the US papers) and it never occurred to me that the same thing wasn’t going on all over the world. You’re absolutely right that the UK doesn’t have a tradition of storytellers like Twain or of “Tall Tales,” (although a case might be made for Jerome K. Jerome and for folktales about giants dropping shovelsful of dirt and the Devil moving churches as a fair equivalent.) Recently I wrote a post on the difficulties of telling the plausible fake from the blatant romp of a fake. Sometimes I despair….And if you add in a writer who delights in hoaxes, all bets are off.’ KHM adds ‘To answer your question, the American form of government, (or more precisely, “self-government”) stands in contrast to the British class system. The fundamental American idea is that almost all people of normal intelligence are able to act rationally and pursue their enlightened self-interest in a way not harmful to society as a whole. In other words, they are sane, mentally balanced and able to think for themselves in critical situations such as voting or holding office. The worst that can be said of an American would involve terms such as crazy, lunatic, mentally deficient, insane, ignorant, etc., since no one like that is capable of self government, or even being a true American. Of course, we all know that in practice American citizens can fall far short of the ideal. They can be quite gullible, subject to socially popular fads and manias, averse to higher education, and possess a false sense of their own importance with insufficient regard for law and order. Newspaper editors, in order to increase circulation in the 19th century, and have some fun embarrassing the gullible, did, in fact, play on these American weaknesses by publishing false, sensationalistic stories. They simply considered themselves entrepreneurs in demonstrating how easily public opinion can be manipulated, thus implying Americans do fall far short of the self-government ideal without realizing it. Personally, I look forward to the day when the editorial page and editors generally will disappear from newspapers and other news sources. We should be able to pay for the real news without accompanying editorial opinion or judgment. We need more confidence that the news is being reported fairly without promoting a political or any other point of view. If the editorial page had to pay for itself, it is doubtful it would in most instances.’ Thanks KHM and thanks Chris!