Did Donald Trump Start the Term “Fake News”?
Latest Controversy Surrounding Trump Is Who Owns Credit for Coining “Fake News”
In the latest liberal media drama, president Donald Trump is receiving backlash for the ubiquitous term “fake news.” It’s a term that exploded onto the scene in the beginning of 2016, as the explosion of half-truths, deception, and outright hit pieces attempted to sway 2016 presidential election voters. Fake news has been adopted in the mainstream lexicon ever since, by both the left and right looking to discredit each other.
Before we get into the specifics of who coined the term, what exactly is fake news anyway? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “Fake news is frequently used to describe a political story which is seen as damaging to an agency, entity, or person.” (Source: “The Real Story of ‘Fake News’,” Merriam-Webster, last accessed October 13, 2017.)
But we would posit it’s more than that. Fake news isn’t just a damaging story intended to misdirect. It’s an intentionally misleading, biased, or flat-out untrue news story deliberately disseminated to lead consumers to an objectified opinion. We’ve seen no shortage of these types of hit pieces recently.
A perfect example: the Russian “pee gate” story disseminated by news organization BuzzFeed on January 10, 2017. The story was based on a dossier created by former British MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The dossier contained unverified allegations of misconduct and collusion between Donald Trump and his campaign and the Russian government.
Perhaps the most damaging details circulated Trump’s alleged involvement with Russian strippers in Moscow. The sexual acts described were of an obscene nature (hence the euphemism “piss gate”). It was possible that this was devised to dissuade evangelical and Christian voters from pulling the trigger on Trump. Had the story been credible, it probably could have swayed several swing state vote tallies in Hillary’s direction.
The only problem was, the story wasn’t credible.
Many media organizations actually knew about the document in the fall of 2016, but declined to publish it because they couldn’t independently verify the information. That’s what real journalists are supposed to do—double verify. The information source was also paid to conduct opposition research for Trump opponents, making it likely the dossier contained goodies the paymasters wanted to hear. From the very outset, the “piss gate” document felt and looked like fake news.
None of this stopped BuzzFeed from moving forward with it. Their argument? The dossier was deemed newsworthy because it was “in wide circulation at the highest levels of American government and media,” thus justifying public release. (Source: “The Trouble With Publishing the Trump Dossier,” The Atlantic, January 11, 2017.)
The story has long since been debunked, dealing the mainstream media yet another black eye. But the scandal demonstrated how far some political actors, along with a complicit media, are willing to go to damage the reputation of the “enemy.” It’s fake news at its worst, but many more examples abound.
And with that little primer, we explore whether Trump invented fake news, or whether it’s been with us longer than we realize.
Fake News Term Origin
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of the term. Up until recently, the news media was a respected profession, which remained fairly impartial. It’s only in the last couple of decades that news has shifted from a “we report, you decide” narrative to a “we report, we try to shape your opinion” one.
If you have any doubts how the standard of impartiality has changed over time, see below.
Mika Brzezinski, from the program Morning Joe, is expressing dismay that Trump controls the narrative with supporters through his use of Twitter. The money part comes at the end, when Brzezinski says, “He could have undermined the messaging so much that he can actually control exactly what people think. And that, that is our job.”
So on some levels, the media’s de-objectifying of impartiality is responsible for the advent of “fake news” as we know it today. But that doesn’t mean questionable reporting hasn’t been around since the dawn of the printing press. Far from it.
As Merriam-Webster tells us, “false news” was a common term used to describe dodgy newspaper reporting as late as the 16th century. “Other things are in this Court at a good price, or to say it better, very good cheap: that is to wit, cruel lies, false news, vnhonest women…”—Antonio de Guevara, The Familiar Epistles of Sir Anthony of Gueuara (trans. By Edward Hellowes), 1575. (Source: Merriam-Webster, op cit.)
According to word experts Merriam-Webster, the word “fake” was a little-used adjective prior to the late 18th century. It was only after the word started being used more commonly that “fake news” saw general use at the end of the 19th century. Below are several historical contexts in which “fake news” was used back in the 19th century:
- Secretary Brunnell Declares Fake News About His People is Being Telegraphed Over the Country.
—Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (Concinnati, OH), 7 Jun. 1890
- Fake News. The following is handed to us for publication: Sunday’s Enterprise says that I and a companion were run over by the Neptune and thrown into the water. As can be proved by more than one, we did not so much as get our feet wet, nor were we helped into the Neptune. Clarence Collins.
—The Kearney Daily Hub (Kearney, NE), 7 Jul. 1890
- The public taste is not really vitiated and it does not in its desire for ‘news’ absolutely crave for distortions of facts and enlargements of incidents; and it certainly has no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’ and ‘special fiend’ decoctions such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago.
—The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY), 2 May 1891
As we can clearly see, fake news is a term that’s been used for quite a long time.
Donald Trump Claims He Coined “Fake News”
There’s certainly some subjectivity to the Donald Trump fake news controversy. In the video below, Trump doesn’t exactly put “fake” and “news” together in the same lexicon. He also acknowledges that “other people may have used it perhaps over the years before.” Technically speaking, it’s more of an insinuation than an absolute claim.
We’ll let our readers be the judge.
Donald Trump literally thinks he invented the word "fake".
An astonishing 10 seconds. pic.twitter.com/AnnDzBC8Y3
— Ryan JL (@RyanJL) October 8, 2017
Who Coined “Fake News”?
It’s our belief that Donald Trump did not coin the term “fake news.” Trump’s recent insinuation clearly has more to do with the fact he hadn’t “heard” the term in recent times, thus taking credit for its modern-day use. But taken in historical context, the term has documented usage dating back to the 19th century. In fact, we’re certain spurious news has been called almost everything in the book, from atrocious to zealous and everything in between.
And that’s not fake news.