Real Fears About Fake News: A Warning From Goldwater
I recently received a reminder that the concept of fake news didn’t just spring fully formed out of the forehead of Donald Trump in 2015, but has been a real specter in American politics for decades.
Roseann Quinn, a reader from Kalispell, Mont., sent me a letter from the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, dated Sept. 19, 1974, that laid out a perfect case for its existence long ago.
It was written by the Arizona Republican to Orion T. Quinn, a World War II veteran who had used his piloting skills later in life to transport politicians such as Goldwater and Gov. Ronald Reagan to their political and campaign stops throughout California and elsewhere. Roseann’s husband, David, had inherited the letter from his father, who died in 1983, and Roseann came across it recently when rummaging through family mementos. It’s a reply to a letter from the elder Quinn, which from the context must have been a complaint about biased and unethical news reporting.
“Believe me,” Goldwater responded, “your concern about the press and media is shared by many of us in public life. I have been talking with editors around the country and particularly with the editor of the biggest paper here in Washington” – presumably Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post, fresh off the Watergate story – “pointing out that unless something is done to reinstill the American’s [sic] faith in the news media, they could well lose the freedom of the press.”
That is a significant admission by Goldwater — that he was worried an irresponsible press might somehow provoke such a backlash that it would eventually lose the protections afforded by the First Amendment. That is a worrisome prospect, one we have not yet reached even today, and it should be emphasized that Goldwater made the statement soon after Watergate, which arguably was the high-water mark of American journalism.
The next line is particularly interesting: “To really appreciate the abuse that news is receiving, you have to live in Washington where the news is made and you hear it made on the Floor of the Senate or the House or the remarks of the President and then read what is said about it the next day, and you wonder if you really heard what you thought you did or not.”
That phrase “the abuse that news is receiving” may sound at first like a complaint of Jim Acosta that he is being mistreated by scary Sarah Sanders, but it is far different. Here, Goldwater is according “the news” a kind of revered status as something that exists not as the work product of CBS or CNN but as a truth, an ideal — the objective facts of what really happened. In Goldwater’s formula, it is the journalists themselves who are abusing the news — by stretching it or slanting it or just not understanding it. I don’t know if anyone working in the celebrity news business today would even recognize the possibility of such an objective truth in politics, but if they do, then the rest of us can attest to the fact that this truth is being abused by agenda-driven reporters who don’t revere “the news” as much as their own ascendant careers.
Although it is natural for 21st century news consumers to see Goldwater’s complaint through the prism of Donald Trump’s war against “fake news,” it should be noted for the record that Goldwater presumably found fault with the news media of the 1970s without consulting Trump. It is certainly not surprising that the conservative icon was wary of the mainstream media since it had savaged him during the 1964 presidential race. Most famously, Goldwater’s credo that “[e]xtremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” was twisted into a dangerous confession of extremism as some shadowy threat to the government instead of what it was — a straightforward pledge to do everything in his power to protect American freedom, the same pledge you would hope to hear from any presidential candidate. The media also somehow forgot the second half of Goldwater’s statement: “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
In retrospect, Goldwater probably offers the closest parallel to the savage treatment accorded to Donald Trump, with the exception that the attacks against Goldwater were more effective. He was a dismal loser in the 1964 race against President Lyndon Johnson, thanks in large measure to such “abusive” reporting as the article in the misleadingly named Fact magazine titled “1,189 Psychiatrists Say Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit to Be President.”
By 1974, however, when Goldwater sent his letter to Orion Quinn, he had undergone the image makeover the media reserves for Republicans who speak out against fellow party members (think John McCain or Jeff Flake, to name a couple of other Arizonans). It was well known that just a month before writing the Quinn letter, Goldwater had told President Nixon that he had one choice — resign voluntarily or be impeached and removed from office — which meant Goldwater had started to make the transition from dangerous firebrand to elder statesman.
Still, he never surrendered his integrity, nor his insight, and the Quinn letter demonstrates incontrovertibly that the conscience of the Republican Party would have understood and applauded President Trump’s war against fake news. Like Trump, Goldwater seemed to know it was a losing battle, but one worth fighting. As our current president has repeatedly said, it’s not about being hurt by negative news, but about expecting fair news.
“I am going to keep trying to get them to straighten out,” Goldwater concluded. “All I ask is objectivity: I don’t want the news slanted at any direction, just toward the truth.”
More than four decades later, we are still waiting.