John Steinbeck Saw “Fake News” Coming When Donald Trump Was Still In Diapers

Image of "fake news' invasion

Did John Steinbeck discover “fake news” seven decades before President Donald Trump? Based on what he wrote about the mainstream media of his day in A Russian Journal, the author of The Grapes of Wrath came pretty close.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1948 book A Russian JournalA Russian Journal is Steinbeck’s first-person journalistic account of the trip he took with photographer Robert Capa in 1947 to the war-battered Soviet Union. In Chapter 1, before he sets off for Russia, Steinbeck describes why he and Capa mistrusted the way the news in America was being gathered, edited, and disseminated by the dominant print and electronic media of their day. It has a familiar ring:

We were depressed, not so much by the news but by the handling of it. For news is no longer news, at least that part of it which draws the most attention. News has become a matter of punditry. A man sitting at a desk in Washington or New York reads the cables and rearranges them to fit his own mental pattern and his by-line. What we often read as news now is not news at all but the opinion of one of half a dozen pundits as to what that news means.

Steinbeck didn’t call it “fake news.” And he was complaining about bias in the media from a partisan New York liberal Democrat’s point of view. But anyone whose politics are not located in the dead center of the political spectrum today can feel his pain.

Claims of political bias or slanted news coverage from the left and right were nothing new when A Russian Journal was published in 1948, and they’ve been with us ever since. Conservatives have complained about the liberal East Coast media for half a century. In the babble of our Talk Radio/Cable News/Digital Age the mainstream media is criticized 24/7 from a thousand sane and insane places. No faction is happy with the spin of the news. In 2016 a Bernie supporter or a lifelong Nation magazine subscriber was just as likely to be unhappy with CNN’s coverage of the election as a member of the Tea Party.

Composite image of John Steinbeck on journalism

The Mainstream Media’s Loss was Literature’s Gain

Though the young John Steinbeck was sacked as a New York City newspaper reporter because he couldn’t stop using his literary skills to improve on the facts, he was basically a journalist. A literary journalist. He had a love-hate for the journalism profession and its practitioners. He envied the ability of reporters to parachute into a strange place and quickly come up with the basic facts for a news story. But he also knew from experience that no journalist or writer—no matter how great—ever gets the whole story or captures more than just a glint of what really happened in a bank robbery, a presidential campaign, or a world war. He wrote this in A Russian Journal:

Capa came back with about four thousand negatives, and I with several hundred pages of notes. We have wondered how to set this trip down and, after much discussion, have decided to write it as it happened, day by day, experience by experience, and sight by sight, without departmentalizing. We shall write what we saw and heard. I know that this is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief. . . . This is just what happened to us. It is not the Russian story, but simply a Russian story.

Cover image from John Steinbeck's 1962 book Travels with CharleySteinbeck’s journalism was super-subjective–sometimes to a fault. Russian Journal was his story about the backward, unfree, monstrous USSR he glimpsed in 1947, just as Travels with Charley was his subjective story about the 1960 America he saw on his iconic 10,000-mile road trip. Both books started out as works of nonfiction–as ambitious acts of serious, albeit personal, journalism. In Charley the many fictions Steinbeck slipped into his story about America overwhelmed the “true” facts, and after 50 years its publishers had to admit that it was so fictionalized Charley could not be considered a credible account of how he traveled or whom he really met.

A Russian Journal has suffered no such loss of credibility. It’s a great work of subjective journalism—a rare glimpse into a dark and alien world by a keen observer. Anyone teaching college students how to report and write in a precise, interesting, and powerful way would be smart to have them study how well Steinbeck did it—his way, and under trying circumstances .

Bill Steigerwald About Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, a newspaper and magazine writer who worked at the Los Angeles Times and two Pittsburgh newspapers before turning to book-length investigative journalism, is the author of Dogging Steinbeck, a radical re-mapping of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South, his most recent book, was released on April 1, 2017. Bill and his wife Trudi live in the woods south of Pittsburgh.

Comments

  1. Wes Stillwagon says:

    I do not believe John Steinbeck “discovered” fake news any more than he discovered harvest gypsies. Fake news is a form of propaganda meant to influence a population. How effective it is depends upon the evolution of the population’s individual citizens. Foe the lowly evolved, like Trump supporters, it can effectively influence the phalanx, the super-organism that is in-charge of the mainly unconscious. The highly evolved are more conscious, aware, and suspicious, independent in thought and feeling and less affected by propaganda. Consider, for example, how fake news would have influenced the little Norwegian village in Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down.” How effective it can be depends upon how it impacts the individual so that they can internalize and personalize its value. Fake news aimed at the masses is no more effective than mass-mailings.

    • Thanks Wes, speaking of fake news, John Steinbeck would have had fits with the lies that the Republican Congress members promoted about our nations health. Steinbeck fought for the poor, the marginal, the down and out, the ordinary person. It would be interesting to have his take on the frontal attack on our less powerful citizens, from denying kids lunch because of no money to pay for it; denying kids access to the center of learning-the library- because they do not have over due money. Add to that the destruction that they want to deliver to the poor and sick i.e. make them work for Medicaid and the majority of the population that cannot survive without medical care-and you have a new phenomena in America. Instead of the War on Poverty, we have a total War on the Poor and less fortunate 99 percenters that are not in the 1% of wealth.

      I am reminded of a quote from East of Eden: “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one…Humans are caught–in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too–in a net of good and evil…There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well-or ill?”

      Amen to that!!

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