What strange times we live in. We have a populist president who chooses to engage with the electorate through social media, 140 characters at a time, and accuses the mainstream news organizations of engaging in Fake News. Truth apparently emanates from the White House through president Trump’s Twitter account and people love it. At last count he had over twenty million followers on Twitter.
We all know that newspapers are yesterday’s technology and are slowly dying in a sea of red ink. Yet, billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, John Henry and Rupert Murdoch are spending billions of dollars buying newspapers, television stations and other media outlets. What’s going on? These are smart guys who became rich by investing their money wisely. Why would they saddle themselves with the tremendous costs of publishing a physical newspaper that only people my age buy? Why don’t they just use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram like everyone else, except me?
By the end of the nineteenth century European emigration to the USA was reaching its’ crescendo. Hundreds, even thousands, of poor immigrants were arriving daily and were straining the meager social services. Nativist Americans, the deplorables of the 19th century, were frightened. These immigrants were taking their jobs, polluting their cities and sending money overseas further depressing the economy. Financial panics of the late 19th century exacerbated this and immigrants were blamed for all the problems America faced. Conservative newspaper barons like William Randolph Hearst took up the cause with a vengeance and published racist, anti-immigrant articles and cartoons. The junior US Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, was one of the most vocal of the anti-immigrant spokesmen and finally succeeded in having Congress pass laws restricting mainly Jewish and Southern Italian immigrants.
Social media didn’t exist in the 19th century but political cartoons, two of which I’m sharing today, were the Tweets of the time. The cartoons portray immigrants in the typical caricatures of the day; Italian brigands carrying guns and knives, Russian (Jewish) socialists and anarchists, Irish paupers coming to feast at the American table. It’s almost unbelievable that offensive cartoons like these were printed but they were and their message seeped into the American sub-conscious. As late as the 1960 election when John F. Kennedy was running for president against Richard M. Nixon, conservative newspapers were spreading anti Catholic and anti-Irish rumors against Kennedy saying, among other things, he would have to consult with the Pope before making any policy decisions. This was an outrageous lie but it was widely believed and it almost cost Kennedy the election.
The liberal news outlets have been comparing President Trump to Richard Nixon but I think this is an unfair comparison. Love him or hate him, Nixon was a statesman who was widely respected throughout the world. He also surrounded himself with talented people like Henry Kissinger. A few months ago the Financial Times columnist, Gillian Tett, thought Trump was much more akin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and I think she is right. Trump and Roosevelt clearly come from opposite ends of the political spectrum but both were populist presidents who fought with their own party as well as the opposition. Both tried packing the Supreme Court with like-minded jurists and filled their cabinets with sycophants. Roosevelt was accused of being a traitor to his own class by imposing a graduated income tax while Trump is considered a traitor to the poor by denying them health care. They also share a disdain and mistrust for the conventional news media. Both have an uncanny ability to bring their message directly to the public, Roosevelt with his “fireside chats” and Trump with his Tweets.
The mostly conservative newspapers of the 1930’s were outraged that the president would speak directly to common Americans without his words being filtered through their writers and editorialists. President Trump is facing the same kind of criticism from contemporary liberal media outlets.
In a sense President Trump is right, all news, including this column, is fake news because it has to reflect the ideas, experiences and prejudices of the writer. We all need a fake news filter especially when reading anonymous posts on social media and “All the news that’s fit to print” sounds great as long as it’s true news.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.