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Fake News Is Really Old News

Focus on the Family president Jim Daly
Focus on the Family president Jim Daly  |

This past Tuesday was the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of legendary ABC Radio newsman Paul Harvey. Known for his homespun and perceptive commentaries, Mr. Harvey used to say that "In times like these, it's important to remember there have always been times like these." He was right.

Wednesday's anonymously authored New York Times Op-Ed featuring a supposed "senior-member" of the Trump administration decrying internal dysfunction set off an avalanche of criticism, and rightly so. If even a fraction of the claims are true – of aides stealing papers from the president's desk to prevent him from signing them – the spectacle of rogue individuals secretly attempting to run the country – we have a problem.

But would it be the first time?

Friday's Wall Street Journal featured a fascinating op-ed detailing the aftermath of President Woodrow Wilson's stroke in 1919, which incapacitated him, though to what extent the public never fully knew. Only in the century since have we learned that First Lady Edith Wilson, presidential physician Cary Grayson and private secretary Joseph Tumulty were, in effect, running the country.

I mention this not to suggest an equivalency in any shape or form, but instead to highlight the cyclical nature of news, whether factual or fictitious.

Case in point: President Trump unleashed a ferocious tweetstorm last week, decrying what he perceives to be a recent frenzy of fakery – everything from "fake news" reporting (CNN, NBC) to "fake books" (Omarosa Manigault, Michael Wolff, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward) and "fake internet searching" (Google, Twitter).

The merits of the president's charges notwithstanding, both supporters and critics of Mr. Trump would be wise to acknowledge that what we're experiencing today isn't really new news at all, but rather old news with new names attached to it.

Yes, today's news cycle is a seemingly never-ending churn of breathless and exclamatory revelations, with each one promising to supersede the last in both might and magnitude. But today's circumstances are far from unprecedented.

To quote the writer of the ancient Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Disgusted with what he considered slanderous journalism and unfair press, America's second president, John Adams, writing more than 220 years ago, lamented, "There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798."

A tweetable jab, to be sure.

Almost a hundred years ago, just after Woodrow Wilson left office, Warren G. Harding, the Republican candidate for president, ran on a populist platform with the campaign slogan, "America First." Sound familiar? It gets better. A runaway favorite for chief executive, the then-Ohio senator had a problem, however, that threatened his ascent to victory. He had a mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, the wife of one of his best friends. Adding to the drama was the fact that she was under federal surveillance and suspected of being a German spy.

From some of Harding's letters, historians have concluded that Mrs. Phillips threatened to disclose their relationship, just as the Ohio senator was poised to win the Republican nomination.

"Your proposal to destroy me, and yourself in doing so, will only add to the ill we have already done," the future president wrote to Carrie Phillips. In exchange for her silence, he offered her $5,000 a year for as long as he was president. One biographer even claims that the Republican Party paid her an additional $25,000. The news of the affair never got out.

With the recent advent of Islamic fascism, it's easy to think domestic terrorism is a recent phenomenon. Yet, anarchists and other misfits have wreaked havoc on U.S. soil since the nation's inception.

In May of 1927, 44 people, most of them children, were killed when a deranged a man, upset over a bank foreclosing on his Michigan farm, blew up the local school in Bath Township, Michigan. He was also angered by what he perceived to be high taxes and didn't believe he should be funding public schools. It remains the deadliest school massacre in American history.

With the United States voluntarily pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, environmental activists have been warning of imminent catastrophe. For example, former vice president Al Gore called President Trump's decision "reckless" and "indefensible" – and even said it "harmed humanity."

Yet nearly 50 years ago, back in 1970, on the eve of the First Earth Day, Denis Hayes, the event's organizer, declared, "It's already too late to avoid mass starvation." At the same time, Life Magazine predicted, "In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution ... by 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half."

The salacious has always been fodder for all forms of journalism. Factual or fictitious, its authors and consumers have long been conditioned to think that the current day's news is far worse than the previous day's events. Given the long sweep of history, it rarely is.

On a recent appearance on "Meet the Press," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was, unartfully, attempting to explain President Trump's challenge of testifying before a grandy jury when two people have a different recollection or version of events. To the bemusement of NBC's Chuck Todd, Mr. Giuliani declared, "Truth isn't truth."

Nearly two-thousand years ago, a Nazarene carpenter named Jesus stood before Pilate, his earthly fate in the hands of the Roman governor. "I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth," Jesus told him. "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

To which Pontius Pilate retorted, "What is truth?"

The familiar refrain rings true: Everything old is new again.

The repetitive, cyclical nature of news shouldn't loosen, lessen or turn cynical one's interest in today's affairs. But a healthy dose of historical perspective, as well as an appreciation for the arc and sweep of time and all its accompanying drama, would allow everyone to take a big daily deep breath and better process current events for what they are and what they really mean.

In the end, that would be "good news" for all of us.

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family.

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