Stafford: 99-year-old war of words over ‘fake news’ sounds familiar

Nov 19, 2017
Historic celebration Veterans of World War I are shown marching north on Fountain Avenue in the Armistice Day (Veterans Day) parade, abbreviated to make it less demanding on older veterans. At extreme left is Roger Sharp, Clark County Veterans Service Officer, who acted as master of ceremonies. The color guards in the picture are American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars units. CLARK COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Ninety-nine Novembers ago, Springfielders and other Clark Countians were primed to celebrate the end of the bloodiest war to that date in human history and breathe a sigh of relief over the fate of homegrown boys who had been exposed to bullets, bombs and mustard gas in muddy foreign trenches.

Just as peace was about to arrive, however, a war broke out on the front pages of Springfield’s two major newspapers. The issue was fake news, and the tone of the back-and-forth anticipated a social medium of the early 21st century.

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From offices at 74 S. Limestone St., the Springfield Daily News, the city’s evening paper — the one with more seniority — fired the first salvo north, calling the Morning Sun, at 19-21 N. Limestone St., “the morning joke.”

The Daily News went on to accuse the younger newspaper of “suffering from the colic” that plagues so many babies.

The ridicule followed The Sun’s premature report of Nov. 8 that World War I had ended, a report the Daily News called not only a hoax but “the greatest disaster in newspaperdom the city of Springfield has ever know.”

The source of the error was United Press, one of the nation’s largest wire services, which had wrongly reported the signing of an armistice on Nov. 8, relying on official military sources.

As the Daily News reported, “Springfield, like practically every other city in the United States, went wild with delirious joy Thursday afternoon and evening with the (erroneous) publication of the report of Germany’s absolute and unconditional surrender.

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“No sooner had the news spread that an impromptu parade was marching the streets,” the paper reported. “Women from the Red Cross Chapter wearing their Red Cross garb, swarmed into the streets, carrying American flags and Red Cross banners,” while “a number of local Greeks” joined in, displaying a Liberty Loan poster saying, “To hell with the Kaiser.”

Although it also reported that the UP story, “threw the country into a delirium yesterday,” that didn’t stop the Daily News — which followed Associated Press reports there had been no armistice signed — from singling out The Sun for derision.

Instead of merely saying The Sun had blundered or made an understandable mistake, the evening paper accused its competitor of being “caught in the meshes of misrepresentations and lies.”

To drive the point home, The Daily News on Nov. 9 published front page pictures of the two paper’s reports of the day before, showing its own headline, “Armistice Not Yet Signed,” and The Sun’s extra announcing in huge print “Germany Surrenders.”

“Which Springfield Paper Can Be Depended Up to Tell the Truth?” the Daily News asked.

In explaining the error The Sun wrote that on that Thursday afternoon it had been “confronted by an unusual — we may say remarkable — situation” when it “was informed through apparently the most authentic sources that Germany had surrendered to the allies and that peace would be at once declared.”

That evening the Daily News provided an edited version of The Sun’s editorial.

Repeating the first sentence about The Sun being confronted with an unusual situation, the Daily News said The Sun should have added “and not a one of us had the least idea what to do.”

Ouch.

On Nov. 11, when The Sun reported the actual armistice, which was to become Veterans Day, the Daily News ridiculed it again.

“Springfield’s second newspaper, evidently flushed with its success in fooling the public Thursday, takes another whirl at it today by claiming to have first given to Springfield the news of the signing of the armistice.

“This is an absolute untrue for the News through its first extra and the Bauer Bros. and Light Company Whistle gave the city its first information — and with several minutes to spare.”

Through prior arrangements with the companies, the Daily News had told its readers it would announced the signing of the armistice by having both Bauer Brothers and the Springfield Light, Heat and Power Co. give one long blast of each of its whistles.

Two long whistles were to have signaled a rejection of the armistice, one long and one short blast that orders had been given for the hostilities to stop.

The Sun, of course, didn’t stay silent in the face of the Daily News’s abuse, charging it with regularly lining its pockets at Springfielders’ expense.

“The most low-down criticism has been exercised by the local evening paper that is famous principally for its numerous ‘fake’ extras, in-as-much as it often prints two or more of them in a single afternoon, with heavy black-letter scare heads with nothing under them. Some persons say the evening paper ought to be held for obtaining money under false pretenses when it tries to gull the public two or three times in one day,” in the absence of real news.

“That paper has even denied the truthfulness of certain authentic statements made by The Sun in extras, and has endeavored, in every way, to evade the disgrace of being by a legitimate newspaper.”

After its series of low blows against The Sun, the Daily News pretended to take the high road, feigning concern for the community while at the same time driving the knife in deeper.

“That the prayers of all that an armistice will soon be signed and hostilities concluded are soon to be realized, perhaps in the next few hours, is most probable, and so let us hope that Springfield’s premature celebration will not in any measure cast a damper on the enthusiasm and joy that true news of the victory should receive when the great event actually occurs.”

Another front page story featured the same sneering voice after it had denied The Sun’s claim that it had scooped the Daily News on the story about the actual armistice.

“The News, at this time of joy and thanksgiving, is not disposed to further argue so trivial a matter, but on the contrary gladly dispenses with further refuting proof to take in the interest of journalism the welcome opportunity of congratulating The Sun on the fact that it finally did get out an extra that, in spite of some glaring misstatements, in part was at least based on THE TRUTH.”

That slam, like the others it had launched against The Sun, not only mimicked the meanness of trench warfare that involved mustard gas, its tone had a familiar ring to wars of words on a social medium that often seems to veer off into being anti-social.

With a little editing — or the use of ellipses … all those criticisms could have been Tweets.