Fake news—that is to say disseminated misinformation or hoaxes using sensationalist or fabricated headlines—has been around for some time. Once it was called yellow journalism. Back in the mid-1890s, during a circulation war between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, editor Erwin Wardman of the New York Press, which apparently published only real news, reportedly coined the term. But even before the yellow journalism label hit the streets, it was not uncommon for newspapers to peddle lies and news satire for profit or political gain.
In the 19th century American newspapers were largely party organs that “colored” facts or manufactured them whole cloth to appease readers, leaving unreported stories favorable to the opposition. Other Western newspaperman, notably Samuel Clemens, gained notoriety for writing spoof articles and hoaxes. For the Oct. 4, 1862, edition of the Territorial Enterprise (Virginia City, Nevada Territory) Clemens wrote a detailed article about the discovery of a petrified man. It was wholly false, created in part to mock a local judge, but newspapers worldwide reprinted the article, and readers swallowed it. On Oct. 28, 1863, Twain debuted his Mark Twain pen name when he published “A Bloody Massacre Near Carson,” a lurid tale about a local man who used various weapons to murder his wife and a half-dozen of his children. With that offering Twain intended to expose real-life securities schemes, but his satirical attack did not register with most readers.
In 1835 James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald, vowing to avoid the political alliances and proselytizing found in competing newspapers. He instead devoted space to salacious crime and scandal, notably the 1836 case of murdered prostitute Helen Jewett, for which he published interviews with key witnesses such as the slain woman’s madam. Such interviews were uncommon at the time, and in 1839 he was granted the first exclusive interview with a sitting U.S. president—Martin Van Buren. A newspaper’s function, said Bennett, was “not to instruct but to startle and amuse.” Son James Gordon Bennett Jr. was at the helm of the paper on Nov. 9, 1874, when the Herald amused readers—and panicked more than a few—by devoting its front page to a fabricated story about a breakout from the Central Park Zoo of, among other predators, a killer rhino, a Bengal tiger, a polar bear and several hyenas.
It was no hoax on Oct. 17, 1877, when Herald correspondent Jerome B. Stillson interviewed Sitting Bull in Canada. That might have been a bigger scoop than getting the eighth U.S. president to answer questions behind closed doors; after all, Sitting Bull was the man (with his Plains Indian friends) who had presided over the decimation of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th U.S. Cavalry command on Montana’s Little Bighorn River a year and a half earlier. The only other people in the room with Stillson and Sitting Bull were two interpreters, a stenographer and Major James M. Walsh, inspector for the North-West Mounted Police.
By Little Bighorn fight time Sitting Bull was in his mid-40s, and while not in combat that day, he made his presence felt on the battlefield as a spiritual leader who possessed his people’s most important virtues—namely bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom. As John Koster writes in his cover article, “Sitting Bull Speaks,” when Stillson asked the infamous fugitive what his role was, the Lakota replied, “I am nothing—neither a chief nor a soldier.…I used to be a kind of chief, but the Americans made me go away from my father’s hunting grounds.” Sitting Bull would return to the States in 1881, albeit to a reservation. By that time Stillson had died of Bright’s disease. In the interim he had become one of New York’s best-known journalists, though in November 1877 the Herald ran his Sitting Bull interview without a byline. Even though Stillson no doubt did some editing, let’s assume the questions and answers he put into print were not fake news. WW