Trumpery and Fake News

The surname Trump is a burden that the US President must carry with him, and he must be used to hearing about ‘trumpery’. He will probably discard it as ‘fake news’. Given his track record on understanding history, he will be almost certainly unaware of the long history of both ideas.

Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, identified three senses to trumpery: something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems; falsehood, empty talk; something of no value; trifles. Earlier, and more concisely, the Dictionarium Bratannicum called it “Trash, sorry, pitiful, paultry Stuff.”

Over the centuries it has also been used to refer to weeds, people (especially women of doubtful character), religious matters (especially those that are superstitious in nature), and generally worthless things in a broad sense.

In the 19th century, the word became attached to the burgeoning newspaper industry. In the 1870s, Albert Sorel, the French historian, said that “Our trumpery newspapers are the newspapers that pay.” Later in the century, the editor of the ‘Nation’ in the US wrote that “The journalist’s business was not to make life moral, but to make it interesting; to furnish raw material for preacher and moralist to use” but cautioned – over optimistically – that “the trumpery side of the Press must sooner or later go, for we could not afford to keep it.”

The emergence of newspapers more interested in sensation than facts grew rapidly with the new technologies of the 19th century and it was not long before ‘fake news’ became a focus of attention, as this section of an 1894 Puck cartoon.

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Ironically, among the greatest purveyors of this sort of journalism – what was often called ‘Yellow Journalism’ – was Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World. For more on this read: https://daily.jstor.org/to-fix-fake-news-look-to-yellow-journalism/ and http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/.

This is yet another example of Mark Twain’s reputed claim that “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme”.

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