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Let's Reminisce: The birth of 'fake news'
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 30, 2018
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Readers of this column know that I’m fond of humor and satire, and today that leads me to memorialize a writer named H. L. Mencken.  It was 100 years ago that he deliberately wrote a piece of “fake news” and was shocked to discover that most of his readers took it seriously.  I am indebted to Baton Rouge Advocate columnist Danny Heitman for bringing this interesting bit of history to my attention.

 

First, a little background on Mencken, who was born in 1880 and lived until 1956.  He began his career as a journalist writing for the Baltimore Sun, and eventually he became known as the Baltimore Sage (or wise guy, to his detractors).  He commented widely on the American social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements. His satirical reporting on the infamous Scopes trial, which he dubbed the “Monkey Trial,” earned him a lot of fans.

 

He praised Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the finest work of American literature, praising it for showing how gullible and ignorant country "boobs" (as Mencken referred to them) are swindled by con men like Twain’s characters who posed as the King and the Duke.   As a scholar, Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language was different in the United States.

 

Here’s how Mencken perpetrated the infamous “bathtub hoax.”  In late December 1917 he felt that Americans were tired of reading about WWI.  So he decided to make up a story about who popularized the bathtub.   He claimed that President Millard Fillmore revolutionized American hygiene by installing the first bathtub in the White House after he arrived in 1850.

 

Mencken was only joking, and he assumed most readers of his column would know that.  But the bathtub hoax, as it came to be known, was an early example of how to create “fake news” that most readers would accept as factual.  First of all, it appeared in the New York Daily News, a highly regarded newspaper. 

Mencken provided a credible background history by claiming there had been a popular prejudice against taking a bath.  He even cited a (nonexistent) Boston city ordinance that supposedly said bathing was illegal “except under medical advice.”

 

His made-up history then went on to assert that by 1860 “every hotel in New York had a bathtub, and some had two and even three.”  Mencken’s readers were not surprised that he lamented Americans’ lack of good hygiene since he often attacked the ignorance of his fellow countrymen.

 

Mencken was proud of his joke and wasn’t surprised to get letters from readers. But his amusement quickly turned to astonishment: “For these readers . . . all took my idle jokes with complete seriousness.”  He began to encounter his preposterous “facts” in the writings of others.  They even began to be cited as proof of the improvement of public hygiene.  They were alluded to on the floor of Congress. They crossed the ocean, and were discussed in England. He concluded, “Finally, I began to find them in standard works of reference. Today, I believe, they are accepted as gospel everywhere.”

 

While he may have exaggerated a bit, Mencken biographers back up his version of the spread of his piece of “fake news.”  The lesson Mencken drew was that most people will embrace as fact what sounds good to them, not necessarily what’s accurate. “What ails the truth,” he wrote in 1926, “is that it is mainly uncomfortable, and often dull. The human mind seeks something more amusing, and more pleasing.”

 

Mencken died more than 60 years ago, but he had a remarkable insight into the life and times of our age of social media and internet journalism.  “Into our most solemn and serious reflections fictions enter,” he lamented nearly a decade after the bathtub hoax, “and three times out of four they quickly crowd out all the facts.”

 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  A new class begins at Grayson College on Feb. 7.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.