While Kellyanne Conway has been credited with inventing “alternative facts” and a Donald Trump White House proclaims everything from crowd sizes to climate change as “fake news” the fact is that the history of fake news is centuries old — some citing ancient Greek writer Herodotus as the founder of selective sourcing; others claiming fake news began in 15th century Italy (where a Franciscan preacher named Bernardino da Feltre used a rumor to justify the mass-arrest, torture, and execution of members of the Italian Jewish community); and still more noting Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, first broadcast as a news bulletin. The fact is that fake news, whether it began 75 years ago or 2500, boasts a long and elaborate history that has very little to do with the Donald himself — though he and his cronies have undoubtedly harnessed its power in dangerous and disturbing ways.
I’m not saying that since fake news has been around longer than the organized news media itself, we should in anyway disregard the problem of a government that invents “facts” to suit its needs and disregards actual truth. But if you want to take on fake facts, you’ll want to arm yourself with as many real facts as you can first. The books on this list will take you into the history of journalism in the United States and around the world, demonstrating the ways a free press is critical to a free society and the ways media can be used to mislead and manipulate citizens, reminding readers that reporters risk their lives all over the world in pursuit of the truth, exploring how facts are used and abused by those in charge of them, and more.
Here are 8 books to help you understand fake news.
1‘Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship’ by Anjan Sundaram
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which now-President Paul Kagame led the rebel forces that ended the genocide, Kagame himself took over as president of the devastated, divided country. First seen as a leader for hope and progress in Rwanda, Kagame’s regime soon began cracking down on free speech, journalists, and anyone else who dared to voice dissent. Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship tells the story of reporter Anjan Sundaram’s time spent running a journalist training program out of Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, and what he learned about the country’s climate of fear, the silence of its citizens, and the government’s brutal treatment of anyone who dares to speak out against the regime’s preferred narrative.
2‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is essential for understanding how the mainstream media is designed to promote certain narratives that influence our choices on everything from how we spend our money to who we vote for, and inform how Americans see themselves in the large context of geopolitics. And yeah, Manufacturing Consent will probably leave you feeling like you can’t trust any of the information you receive from any media outlet these days it’s important to consider what's being sold to you, why you feel the way you do about certain issues, and how certain people, policies, and products have (or haven’t) been marketed to you.
3‘The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism’ by Mitchell Stephens
More than anyone else, Lowell Thomas is credited with the invention of contemporary journalism. Going on sale June 20, Mitchell Stephen’s The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism will take you into the fascinating life, times, and adventures of the man who was considered the most famous reporter of his time — giving America’s first radio broadcast and keeping the country apprised of global happenings during some of the most challenging decades in modern history. If we want to know where our modern media is going, we definitely need to understand where it came from.
4‘Writers Under Siege: Voices of Freedom from Around the World’ edited by Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones
Again, for those struggling to trust the media in tumultuous times, Lucy Popescu’s and Carole Seymour-Jones’s edited collection, Writers Under Siege: Voices of Freedom from Around the World, will remind you that on the whole, there are hardworking reporters risking their lives, and sometimes giving their lives, to bring facts (actual, verifiable ones) to their citizens every day. Writers Under Siege will take you into the experiences of some of those reporters — whether they’re writing from war zones, genocides, or dictatorships; or from countries with no free press, where reporters are jailed, tortured, or murdered for their words. You’ll never underestimate the power of the pen again — nor the need to wield it responsibly.
5‘Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era’ by Daniel Levitin
In Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era, Daniel Levitin demonstrates techniques used by advertisers and commentators to manipulate the minds of viewers. From irresponsibly interpreted statistics to wordy arguments that seem to say one thing but may mean another, Levitin shows the myriad ways even the most astute of Americans can be gradually led away from the facts. In an age of “alternative facts” responsible citizens can neither panic nor tune out — instead, we need to better understand not only the information we’re being presented, but how the method of presentation just might be designed towards a specific outcome.
6‘All the President's Men’ by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Oh, the good ol’ days of President Nixon — amirite? All the President’s Men, by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, chronicles (what was once) the biggest scandal in American political history — Watergate. Together Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal, and for anyone who has completely lost faith in our government’s leaders and the institutions designed to keep them honest, remember that Richard Nixon wasn’t really taken down by a special Congressional counsel — he was taken down by two reporters at The Washington Post.
7‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ by Jim Fingal and John D'Agata
The Lifespan of a Fact chronicles the back-and-forth dialogue between essayist John D'Agata and his fact-checker Jim Fingal, in a behind-the-scenes exploration of how fact and truth are negotiated in nonfiction writing. When an essay of D’Agata’s was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it for factual inaccuracies, D’Agata teamed up with Fingal in what became a whopping seven years of research, debate, and search for accurate truth.
8‘Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News’ by A. Brad Schwartz
Taking a close look at the history of fake news in America (it’s been around longer then Kellyanne Conway, if you can believe it) Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by A. Brad Schwartz begins with the 1938 broadcast of a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside — complete with an otherworldly attack that threatened to overtake New York City. That broadcast was Orson Welles's radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, and in the aftermath of the broadcast, newspapers all over the country reported mass hysteria of American citizens. Except, for the most part, such hysteria never took place. Still, this single moment in radio history changed the way media is broadcast and consumed in American, as citizens realized not only the power of reportage, but the unique power of those who report the news (or, you know, disseminate the fake news.)