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Where It All Began: The Dawn of “Fake News”

It has long been suggested that the first full-blown example of “fake news”—where patently false information is intentionally presented in a phony but utterly believable “news media” format in order to sway public opinion—occurred during the watershed 1934 California gubernatorial election.

The two principals were Republican incumbent, Frank Merriman, and his Democratic challenger, Upton Sinclair. Merriman, a nondescript political lightweight with no national profile, was viewed more or less by the RNC as the Party’s West Coast performing flea. As Lieutenant Governor he was jettisoned into the incumbency when Governor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph died of a heart attack in June of 1934, just months before the election.

His chief opponent, Upton Sinclair, a prairie socialist and muckraker, was the celebrated author of “The Jungle,” the best-selling expose of the Chicago meat packing industry. Because the nation was still in the stranglehold of the most debilitating economic depression in its history, Sinclair reasonably chose to base his campaign on the EPIC (End Poverty in California) project.

Put simply, EPIC was an ambitious socialist program whose goal was universal employment. Among other things, EPIC promised massive public works programs, the reorganization of the agriculture industry into farm co-ops, and virtual state control of California’s factories.

Given the overall popularity of FDR’s New Deal, and the fact that the American Left was still feeding off table scraps of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the notion of “eliminating poverty” was properly considered not only necessary but feasible.

In addition to Merriman and Sinclair, there were two other notable players: Louis B. Mayer, the powerful overlord of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), whose dominion over the movie industry permitted him to comport himself like the Sun King (think of Harvey Weinstein magnified 100 times). and the advertising-public relations firm of Whitaker & Baker.

As for the “fake news,” it was played out like this. Louis B. Mayer took it upon himself to make sure that California, as undeniably economically strapped as it was, didn’t fall prey to the wildly doctrinaire Socialist goals of Upton Sinclair. He did this by applying old-fashioned Hollywood muscle and magic.

Mayer hired Whitaker & Baker to produce a series of faux newsreels that were guaranteed not only to influence people, but to terrify them. Disguised to resemble authentic newsreel footage, Mayer made sure these propaganda instruments were shown in California movie theaters—just as “real” newsreels were shown. The audience had no idea they were being conned. Accordingly, they were either confused by what they saw, or scared shitless by it.

One example of these fake newsreels featured herds of desperate, seedy-looking hoboes emerging from the boxcars of a train. A fake journalist was there to interview them. One of the hoboes explained his presence in California by proudly declaring, “Sinclair says he’ll take the property of the working people and give it to us.” The audience didn’t need Bolshevik decoder rings to get the message.

In another example, a swarthy, bearded man (the intentional diametric opposite of a clean-cut, corn-fed Iowan) with a phony Russian accent so thick, it required him to pronounce a “W” as a “V” explains why he would be supporting Sinclair. “His system vorked vell in Russia, so vy can’t it vork here?” Vy, indeed.

Of course, even the most successful advertising agencies never know for certain if these incendiary spots will work, and this was true of Whitaker & Baker. The way the ad agencies (and their customers) regard their output is by the results. As they like to say, all you can do is pour it on the floor and see if the cat licks it up.

But by all accounts the Mayer fake news campaign was successful. Merriam won with roughly 48% of the vote, Upton finished second with roughly 37%, and Raymond Haight, running as a Progressive, got 13%. Samuel Darcey was on the ballot as a Communist Party candidate, and Milen Dempster as a Socialist Party candidate. Neither man came close to receiving even half of one-percent.

While today’s political smear campaigns and propaganda have gotten more sophisticated and subtle, the underlying ethics remain as maggoty as ever. Consider the insidious second-cousin to Mayer’s outrageous fake newsreels: the so-called “push poll.”

This is where pollsters pretend to be taking a survey but are actually “pushing” an agenda. It happened in South Carolina, in 2000, during the Republican primary pitting George W. Bush against John McCain. Pollsters posed this question to potential voters: Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate that had fathered a black child out of wedlock?

They didn’t flatly accuse McCain of fathering a mixed-race child because that would have required proof. Instead they played off nasty rumors by pretending to form it as a “harmless” question. People still insist that this push poll worked. That it was responsible for Bush beating McCain. And vy vouldn’t it vork?

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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