Fake News! Vintage style,

The World’s Work is a monthly publication launched by Doubleday and Page at the turn of the last century. The periodical follows a format of curated, editorial news stories, featured interest pieces, and a healthy body of paid advertising. 

I learned of The World’s Work when a collection of them, covering the first fourteen years of publication, from January, 1901 through the end of 1914, were brought into the store here at Good Find. Like with all our products, I researched the collection’s marketability and pricing, but as sometimes happens, my interest was captured by these volumes of rich, zesty history. The more I read them the more I was fascinated by how closely history seemed to echo its rhyme across more than a hundred years to remain relevant today. As I read more and more articles, I became inspired to share them and to explore together the ways in which our past might inform our present and our future, and to reflect on how much and how little has changed.

To this end, I have begun a new blog series for our growing audience of readers, history buffs and curious minds. Our new series exploring The World’s Work will be our first to include an accompanying audio/image version on our YouTube channel. I hope you will enjoy it, like, subscribe and share with your friends.

When I first read this article I thought to myself: ‘Fake News!’, and how could one not? The familiar echo of people rebutting and mistrusting the press is unmistakable. Just like today, though, the only way I could know whether the criticisms were legitimate was to step back and look at the context of this writing, and ideally, to read the accused publications and dispatches for myself. 

To start, I asked myself what this author is really saying. A few things stood out that I felt informed me about the author’s underlying principles and views. For example, “news-gathering is not even yet truthfully organized”. I think he is saying that journalism, as a trade, is not yet very professionalized, versus making another complaint about truthfulness. I think he is giving a sort of backhanded pardon to the industry by allowing that they are still perfecting their trade, and so it is an excuse that there are some bad journalists. Another interesting comment by the author is that publications should employ reputable people, who have their identity, and therefore their reputation, attached to the accuracy and legitimacy of their dispatches. For me, this is very much a timely topic. Today, as our society struggles with the role of journalism in world affairs, and as credibility and truthfulness of the media is very much in question, there is now a strong debate and widely accepted position that anonymity, pseudonymity, and privacy are very much associated with authenticity and truth. It is worth reflecting on who, in our time, would align with the editorial staff at The World’s Work in 1901 in saying that people should have to identify themselves to be taken seriously, versus who would say that anonymity is crucial in being able to express a truthful view. And of course, this very last part, where the author says that the temptation for some to lie is particularly so in the tropics, and in foreign lands. This seems like a pretty full statement. On its surface, maybe it is about xenophobia or racism, and probably it is. But if the question were put to the author, I feel sure the statement would be about the human inclination for self-interest, and the diminishing effect of authorities over individuals as distance between the two increases. 

For more context, it is helpful to know what the reporting from last summer, which is the object of the writer’s ire, actually was about. The article is referring to the Boxer Rebellion, then occurring in China. By the time of this article, the events that came to define the rebellion were over, but in the summer of 1900, eight nations were in a red hot conflict with China, and the Chinese regional and municipal governments were divided between what I will way-too-oversimplify and call traditionalism, versus what I will way-too-oversimplify and call westernization. The real, complicated reasons for the conflict included religious and cultural conflicts, internal and global politics, drought, and lots and lots of business and economic interests. Those power interests in the United States would have been following developments in China very closely, and getting accurate information, especially information that could settle armed conflict in favor of commercialization, would have been paramount. 

The specific incidents in question happened in June, 1900. The foreign ministers, along with a number of foreign armed forces and Chinese Christians were under siege in China, and over the course of the month, events led to the deaths of two ministers, those of Japan and Germany. The ministers were killed on separate occasions, and both times the ministers had been found in the street by irregular combatants, i.e. not by soldiers of the Imperial Chinese army. If news outlets incorrectly reported that the ministers had been killed by torture, or killed by forces of the Imperial army, there is a big difference in terms of how people would feel, and what an appropriate government response would be.

Alas, I have not tracked down the misleading dispatches themselves, nor have I identified the depraved scoundrel in Galveston. Maybe one of you readers will take up the research and leave a comment below letting us know the culprit!

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1 comment

  • C. Caudill

    The World’s Work no doubt speaks to the sensationalized and competitive reporting found in the Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and Wm. Randolph Heart’s New York Journal. As if in answer to the W.W. excerpt, new post-1901 publications featured the ‘“muckraking” writings of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell (The American Magazine), Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) and Elizabeth Cochran’s reporting under the pseudonym Nellie Bly. Cartoonist R.F. Outcault created ‘The Yellow Kid’ and ‘Buster Brown’ characters. Both newspapers featured Outcault’s cartoon strips which poked holes in the news of the day. The cartoon strips colored Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s irascible reporting as Yellow Journalism.

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