Editor’s Note: Michael D. Rich is president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corp. Jennifer Kavanagh is a political scientist at RAND. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
In the 1890s, during the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst fanned prejudice against Spain with lurid headlines and sensationalized stories. “You furnish the pictures,” he famously told one of his correspondents, “and I’ll furnish the war.”
The approach employed by Hearst and his fierce competitor, Joseph Pulitzer, came to be known as yellow journalism, essentially a precursor to fake news. Presenting falsehoods as news might seem to be a recent development, but the phenomenon has emerged several times throughout American history.
During three periods in particular – the Gilded Age of the 1880s and 1890s, the Roaring Twenties through the 1930s, and the Vietnam era of the late 1960s and early 1970s – there is evidence of a shift away from reliance on facts. We call this trend Truth Decay.
As part of a broader inquiry, the RAND Corp. examined these periods to see what each might teach us about the nation’s current fraught relationship with objective truths. In national political debate and discourse about public policy, facts seem increasingly irrelevant. Evidence of this can be found in disagreements over such issues as gun violence, immigration and crime rates. Discord persists regarding these issues despite the availability of reliable data to resolve disagreement and enable compromise.
We were pleased to see that President Obama included our report on his summer reading list. If people take him up on his recommendation, they will discover some good news: In each of the past eras examined, the pendulum eventually swung back to fact-based discourse. But in modern society, conflicts over facts appear to be worse than ever.
As in the other historical eras that concern us, the 1880s and 1890s were a period of social and economic transformation. The country was rapidly industrializing but economic inequality grew, fueling a populist movement. At the same time the information landscape underwent dramatic change with the growth of mass-produced newspapers and monthly journals.
Hearst and Pulitzer played a major role in increasing the flow of information to the public, but this information often included false and misleading reports and emphasized distinct political stances. Yellow journalism’s fevered coverage events, including the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, likely helped fuel public support for the United States’ entry into the Spanish-American War.
Sensationalism surged again during the Roaring Twenties, in the form of tabloid journalism that emphasized sex and crime and helped turn news into entertainment. More established papers tried to compete with the tabloids by adding “soft” features such as advice columns and short stories, a shift that came at the expense of fact-based content.
In the 1930s, radio took off, offering hard-news journalists like Edward R. Murrow a new platform and enabling the wide dissemination of opinions. Radio personalities such as the Rev. Charles Coughlin, a priest who preached hatred for Jews and tolerance for Nazis, and Huey Long, the Louisiana politician who used the medium as a megaphone for his populist views, drew massive followings. They influenced the political and social thought of their day much as some cable TV commentators do today.
The 1960s and 1970s are well-known as a time of disillusionment, marked by protests against the Vietnam War, the government, racial discrimination and other social ills. Against this backdrop of change, new voices arose in journalism. Writers such as Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe borrowed techniques from fiction to produce compelling, highly personal narratives that did not necessarily equate truth with objectivity. In many instances, this approach made it difficult to discern reported facts from judgments.
The erosion of the line between fact and opinion is one of the strongest trends linking the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the Vietnam era to today. Other key elements of Truth Decay can be detected in each era, including declining public confidence in key societal institutions, such as government and the media, and the increasing volume and resulting influence of opinion and anecdote over factual information observed in yellow journalism and tabloid journalism.
To some extent, bouts of truth decay may wax and wane over time. But in the three historical periods, countervailing forces helped restore trust in and demand for facts.
In the 1920s and ’30s, factual information gained respect after the creation of government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the Farm Security Administration, which were empowered to collect and analyze data to inform public policy. In the other earlier periods, journalistic excesses were countered by an upswing in investigative reporting and, in some cases, the emergence of new codes of conduct for journalists.
The new demand for facts was driven partly by recognition of the problems that result from trying to operate without them. The turn toward data-based policymaking in the 1930s was at least partly a reaction to the Great Depression and the consequences of uninformed economic policies. Momentous events such as World War II and the Vietnam conflict also sharpened public demand for facts and objective analysis.
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The final element of Truth Decay – rising disagreement over the basic veracity and legitimacy of facts – is largely missing from the earlier eras we explored. The same cannot be said about the present.
Intractable debates on important questions persist today despite knowable answers, often because those answers do not conform to entrenched opinions. For example, attacks on vaccines – an increasingly politicized issue – are based almost entirely on false or misleading information, including disproven reports that vaccines cause autism. The consequences of decisions made without facts are evident in a recent report from Europe, where the measles virus found its way into areas with high numbers of unvaccinated children, leading to a quadrupling of measles cases in 2017.
This declining regard for factual evidence may be a defining characteristic of our current age. Previous eras suggest it is within society’s power to restore respect for objective facts. Humankind just needs to put it on the agenda.