Rumor, gossip, nonsense: How the news became a nightmare

The road to Fox News and the commercialization of information begins with the amazing history of mass media

Published March 29, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself"

In 1704 the English writer Daniel Defoe embarked on the publication of a political journal: the Weekly Review of the Affairs of France. This was not yet the Defoe made famous by his great novel Robinson Crusoe; he would discover his vocation as a novelist only late in life. Up to this point Defoe had tried his hand at many things, and often failed. The Review (as it soon became) was the latest of many attempts to find a way to make money. This time it worked. Within a few months Defoe’s publication had found its new form, as a serial issued two or three times a week, consisting largely of a single essay on an item of topical interest.

Defoe was lucky. He had launched the Review at a time when the reading public was expanding rapidly, along with a market for current affairs. Naturally Defoe made the most of it. When, in an essay in 1712, he turned his mind to this buoyant market for news publishing, he did not hold back. The present times, wrote Defoe, had seen a media explosion. He recalled a time, even in his own lifetime, when there had been no such torrent of newspapers, state papers and political writing. The rage for news was transforming society, and Defoe was happy to be in the thick of it.

Defoe was not the only one to remark the current passion for news, and the rancorous tone of political debate that seemed to come with it. But if he truly thought this was new he was very much mistaken. The conflicts of the English Civil War over sixty years previously had stimulated a torrent of pamphlets, news reports and abusive political treatises. The first continental newspapers were established forty years before that. Long before Defoe, and even before the creation of the newspapers, the appetite for news was proverbial. ‘How now, what news?’ was a common English greeting, frequently evoked on the London stage. Travelers could buy phrase books that offered the necessary vocabulary, so they too could join the conversation: ‘What news have you? How goeth all in this city? What news have they in Spain?’

If there was a time when news first became a commercial commodity, it occurred not in Defoe’s London, or even with the invention of the newspaper, but much earlier: in the eighty years between 1450 and 1530 following the invention of printing. During this period of technological innovation, publishers began to experiment with new types of books, far shorter and cheaper than the theological and scholarly texts that had dominated the market in manuscripts. These pamphlets and broadsheets created the opportunity to turn the existing appetite for news into a mass market. News could become, for the first time, a part of popular culture.

This book, which traces the development of the European news market in the four centuries between about 1400 and 1800, is the story of that transformation. It follows the development of a commercial news market from the medieval period – when news was the prerogative of political elites – to a point four hundred years later when news was beginning to play a decisive role in popular politics. By the time of the French and American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, news publications were not only providing a day by day account of unfolding events, they could be seen to play an influential role in shaping them. The age of a mass media lay at hand.

Trusting the Messenger

Of course the desire to be informed, to be in the know, is in one respect as old as human society itself. People would go to some lengths to find out the news. In the eleventh century two monasteries in rural Wales, one hundred miles apart across rugged terrain, would every third year exchange messengers who would live in the other house for a week, to share the news.

This tale, related in a Tudor chronicle, points up one other important aspect of the information culture of that earlier period. Our medieval ancestors had a profound suspicion of information that came to them in written form. They were by no means certain that something written was more trustworthy than the spoken word. Rather the contrary: a news report gained credibility from the reputation of the person who delivered it. So a news report delivered verbally by a trusted friend or messenger was far more likely to be believed than an anonymous written report. This old tradition, where the trust given to a report depended on the credit of the teller, had an enduring influence over attitudes to news reporting. But this early news world is not easy to reconstruct. Verbal reports in the nature of things leave little trace for the historian: studying the early history of news is a matter of combing through scraps and fragments.

Bernard of Clairvaux, architect of the Cistercian order, sat at the centre of one of medieval Europe’s greatest news networks. Those who visited Clairvaux in eastern France would bring him news of their travels; sometimes they would carry his letters away with them when they departed. We are unusually well informed about Bernard’s news network, because over five hundred of his letters survive. But in some respects Bernard is utterly characteristic of the news world of the medieval period. At this time regular access to news was the prerogative of those in circles of power. Only they could afford it; only they had the means to gather it. But even for these privileged individuals at the apex of society, news gathering was not unproblematic. They were fully aware that those who brought them news were likely to be interested parties. The traveling cleric who brought Bernard news of a distant episcopal election might be supporting one candidate; the ambassador writing home from abroad might be seeking to influence policy; merchants hoped to gain from a fluctuating market. Merchants, in particular, had a keen awareness of the value of information, and the dangers of acting on a false rumor. For the first two centuries of the period covered by this book merchants were both the principal consumers of news and its most reliable suppliers.

Even as news became more plentiful in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the problem of establishing the veracity of news reports remained acute. The news market – and by the sixteenth century it was a real market – was humming with conflicting reports, some incredible, some all too plausible: lives, fortunes, even the fate of kingdoms could depend on acting on the right information. The great events of history that pepper these pages were often initially mis-reported.

In 1588 it was originally thought throughout much of continental Europe that the Spanish Armada had inflicted a crushing defeat on the English fleet; as in this case, the first definitive news was frequently outrun by rumor or wishful thinking, spreading panic or misjudged celebration. It was important to be first with the news, but only if it was true. This troubling paradox initiated a second phase in the history of news analysis: the search for corroboration. As we will see, by the sixteenth century professional news men had become quite sophisticated in their handling of sensitive information. The first intimation of tumultuous events was reported, but with the cautious reflection ‘this report is not yet confirmed’. Europe’s rulers would pay richly for the earliest report of a crucial event, but they often waited for the second or third report before acting upon it. But this was not a luxury all could afford: for the French Protestants hearing news of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572, only immediate action might save them from becoming one of the next victims. In these troubled times news could be a matter of life and death.

News, Rumor and Gossip

Not all news concerned events of such momentous or immediate relevance. Even before the publication of the first weekly newspapers in the seventeenth century, enormous quantities of news were available for those prepared to pay for it, or even just to follow the talk in the market square. To Defoe this abundance was a great miracle of modern society. To others it was deeply troubling. From this great mass of swirling information how could one extract what was truly significant? How could one tell the signal from the noise?

Those who followed the news had to devise their own methods of making their way through the mass of rumor, exaggeration and breathlessly shared confidences to construct a reasonable version of the truth. First they tended to exclude the purely personal and parochial. Our ancestors certainly delighted in the tales of the ambitions, schemes and misfortunes of their families, neighbors and friends: who was to marry whom, which merchants and tradesmen faced ruin, whose reputation had been compromised by a liaison with a servant or apprentice. When in 1561 a citizen of Memmlingen in southern Germany rather unwisely decided to get to the bottom of who had spread a rumor that his daughter had fled town to conceal an unwanted pregnancy, fifty citizens could offer precise recollections of how they first heard this delicious gossip. But however eagerly consumed and passed on, this sort of scuttlebutt was not generally what people thought of as news. When men and women asked friends, business partners or neighbors, ‘What news?’, they meant news of great events: of developments at court, wars, battles, pestilence or the fall of the great. This was the news that they shared in correspondence and conversation, and this was the news that fuelled the first commercial market in current affairs.

Very occasionally, through a diary or family chronicle, we have a window into the process by which early news readers weighed and evaluated these news reports. One such was Herman Weinsberg, who lived in the great German city of Cologne in the later sixteenth century. Weinsberg, it must be said, was a very odd man. It was only after his death that his appalled family discovered that he had memorialized all their doings in an expansive chronicle of their lives and times. Weinsberg, who lived a comfortable existence on the rents from inherited property, took a close interest in contemporary events. Living outside the circles of the city elite, he was forced to rely on what he picked up from friends, or read in purchased pamphlets. Happily a news hub like Cologne was drenched in information, but not all sources could be relied upon. Weinsberg’s technique was to weigh conflicting reports to discern the ‘general opinion’ or consensus. In this he unconsciously imitated precisely the process followed by the city’s magistrates, or at Europe’s princely courts. But sometimes it was simply impossible to discern the true state of affairs. When in 1585 the nearby town of Neuss was surprisingly captured by forces of the Protestant Archbishop Gerhard von Truchsess, Weinsberg heard no fewer than twelve different accounts of how the archbishop’s soldiers had slipped into the town undetected. He interviewed eyewitnesses who told their own story. The city council sent messenger after messenger to find out what had happened, but they were prevented from entering the town. Weinsberg had eventually to conclude that the true facts might never be known: ‘Each person cannot truly say and know more than what he had seen and heard at the place where he was at that hour. But if he heard about it from others, the story may be faulty; he cannot truly know it.’

The exponential growth of news reporting did not necessarily make things easier; many believed it made things worse. In fact, for those traditionally in the know, the industrialization of news, the creation of a news industry where news was traded for profit, threatened to undermine the whole process by which news had traditionally been verified – where the credit of the report was closely linked to the reputation of the teller. In the burgeoning mass market this vital link – the personal integrity of those who passed on the news – was broken.

The Commercialization of News

In the first stages of our narrative almost no one made money from supplying news. On the contrary, the provision of news was so expensive that only the elites of medieval Europe could afford it. You either had to pay large sums to build up a network of messengers – a fixed cost that proved beyond the means even of some of Europe’s wealthiest rulers – or rely on those under a social obligation to provide news for free: feudal dependants, aspirants for favor, or, in the case of the Church, fellow clerics. Even Europe’s most mighty princes frequently cut costs by handing their despatches to friendly merchants, who would carry them for free.

It is only in the sixteenth century that we will encounter the systematic commercialization of these services. The first to make money from selling news were a group of discreet and worldly men who plied their trade in the cities of Italy. Here in Europe’s most sophisticated news market they offered their clients, themselves powerful men, a weekly handwritten briefing. The most successful ran a shop full of scribes turning out several dozen copies a week. These avvisi were succinct, wide ranging and remarkably well informed. They are one of the great untold stories of the early news market.

This was an expensive service, yet such was the thirst for information that many of Europe’s rulers and their advisers subscribed to several of them. But such facilities only met the needs of those for whom access to the best sources of information was a political necessity. The vast majority of the population made do with what news they could come by for free: in the tavern or marketplace, in official announcements proclaimed on the town hall steps. These too played an important role in shaping the climate of opinion, and would remain an essential part of the news market throughout the period covered in this book. Europe’s more humble residents sought out news where they could find it: in conversation, correspondence, from travelers and friends.

The real transformation of the news market would come from the development of a news market in print. This would occur only haltingly after the first invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century. For half a century or more thereafter printers would follow a very conservative strategy, concentrating on publishing editions of the books most familiar from the medieval manuscript tradition. But in the sixteenth century they would also begin to open up new markets – and one of these was a market for news. News fitted ideally into the expanding market for cheap print, and it swiftly became an important commodity. This burgeoning wave of news reporting was of an entirely different order. It took its tone from the new genre of pamphlets that had preceded it: the passionate advocacy that had accompanied the Reformation. So this sort of news reporting was very different from the discreet, dispassionate services of the manuscript news men. News pamphlets were often committed and engaged, intended to persuade as well as inform. News also became, for the first time, part of the entertainment industry. What could be more entertaining than the tale of some catastrophe in a far-off place, or a grisly murder?

This was not unproblematic, particularly for the traditional leaders of society who were used to news being part of a confidential service, provided by trusted agents. Naturally the elites sought to control this new commercial market, to ensure that the messages delivered by these news books would show them in a good light. Printers who wanted their shops to remain open were careful to report only the local prince’s victories and triumphs, not the battlefield reverses that undermined his reputation and authority. Those printers who co-operated willingly could rely on help in securing access to the right texts. Court poets and writers, often quite distinguished literary figures, found that they were obliged to undertake new and unfamiliar tasks, penning texts lauding their prince’s military prowess and excoriating his enemies. Many of these writings made their way into print. For all that this period is often presented as one of autocratic and unrepresentative government, we will discover that from remarkably early in the age of the first printed books Europe’s rulers invested considerable effort in putting their point of view, and explaining their policies, to their citizens. This too is an important part of the story of news.

The patriotic optimism of the news pamphlets served Europe’s rulers well in their first precocious efforts at the management of public opinion. But it posed difficulties for those whose decisions relied on an accurate flow of information. Merchants ready to consign their goods to the road had to have a more measured view of what they would find – news pamphlets that obscured the true state of affairs were no good to them if what was important was that their cargoes should safely reach their destination. The divisions within Europe brought about by the Reformation were a further complicating factor: the news vendors of Protestant and Catholic nations would increasingly reproduce only news that came from their side of the confessional divide. News therefore took on an increasingly sectarian character. All this led to distortions tending to obscure the true course of events. This might be good for morale, but for those in positions of influence who needed to have access to more dispassionate reporting the growth of this mass market in news print was largely a distraction. For this reason the rash of news pamphlets that flooded the market in the sixteenth century did not drive out the more exclusive manuscript services. The avvisi continued to find a market among those with the money to pay; in many parts of Europe confidential manuscript news services continued to prosper well into the second half of the eighteenth century.

The Birth of the Newspaper

The printed news pamphlets of the sixteenth century were a milestone in the development of the news market, but they further complicated issues of truth and veracity. Competing for limited disposable cash among a less wealthy class of reader, the purveyors of the news pamphlets had a clear incentive to make these accounts as lively as possible. This raised real questions as to their reliability. How could a news report possibly be trusted if the author exaggerated to increase its commercial appeal?

The emergence of the newspaper in the early seventeenth century represents an attempt to square this circle. As the apparatus of government grew in Europe’s new nation states, the number of those who needed to keep abreast of the news also increased exponentially. In 1605 one enterprising German stationer thought he could meet this demand by mechanising his existing manuscript newsletter service. This was the birth of the newspaper: but its style – the sober, detached recitation of news reports inherited from the manuscript newsletter – had little in common with that of the more engaged and discursive news pamphlets.

The newspaper, as it turned out, would have a difficult birth. Although it spread quickly, with newspapers founded in over twenty German towns in the next thirty years, other parts of Europe proved more resistant – Italy for instance was late to adopt this form of news publication. Many of the first newspapers struggled to make money, and swiftly closed.

The trouble with the newspapers was that they were not very enjoyable. Although it might be important to be seen to be a subscriber, and thus to have the social kudos of one who followed the world’s affairs, the early newspapers were not much fun to read. The desiccated sequence of bare, undecorated facts made them difficult to follow – sometimes, plainly baffling. What did it mean to be told that the Duke of Sessa had arrived in Florence, without knowing who he was or why he was there? Was this a good thing or a bad thing? For inexperienced news readers this was tough going. People who were used to the familiar ordered narrative of a news pamphlet found the style alienating.

News pamphlets offered a very different presentation of news, and one far better adapted to contemporary narrative conventions. Pamphlets concentrated on the most exciting events, battles, crimes and sensations; and they were generally published at the close of the events they described. They had a beginning, a middle and an end. Most of all, news pamphlets attempted an explanation of causes and consequences. By and large, this being a religious age, news pamphlets of this sort also drew a moral: that the king was mighty; that malefactors got their just deserts; that the unfortunate victims of natural catastrophe were being punished for their sins.

The news reporting of the newspapers was very different, and utterly unfamiliar to those who had not previously been subscribers to the manuscript service. Each report was no more than a couple of sentences long. It offered no explanation, comment or commentary. Unlike a news pamphlet the reader did not know where this fitted in the narrative – or even whether what was reported would turn out to be important. This made for a very particular and quite demanding sort of news. The format offered inexperienced readers very little help. The most important story was seldom placed first; there were no headlines, and no illustrations. And because newspapers were offered on a subscription basis, readers were expected to follow events from issue to issue; this was time-consuming, expensive and rather wearing.

This was not at all how most citizens of European society in these years experienced news. For them, great events might only be of interest when they impacted their lives directly. Even for the more curious, it was easy to dip in and out, to buy a pamphlet when it interested them, and, when not, to save the money for some other pursuit. This made far more sense in terms of the way events unfolded – sometimes momentous, sometimes frankly rather humdrum. The news pamphlets reflected this reality: that sometimes news was important, and provoked a flurry of activity on the presses, and sometimes it was not.

So it was by no means easy to persuade the inhabitants of seventeenth-century Europe that the purchase of news publications should be a regular commitment. It is not difficult to see why newspapers were so slow to catch on. Consumers had to be taught to want a regular fix of news, and they had to acquire the tools to understand it. This took time; the circle of those with an understanding of the world outside their own town or village expanded only slowly. For all of these reasons it would be well over a hundred years from the foundation of the first newspaper before it became an everyday part of life – and only at the end of the eighteenth century would the newspaper become a major agent of opinion-forming.

The birth of the newspaper did not immediately transform the news market. Indeed, for at least a hundred years newspapers struggled to find a place in what remained a multi-media business. The dawn of print did not suppress earlier forms of news transmission. Most people continued to receive much of their news by word of mouth. The transmission of news offered a profound demonstration of the vitality of these raucous, intimate, neighborly societies. News was passed from person to person in the market square, in and outside church, in family groups. Enterprising citizens celebrated exciting occurrences in song: this too became a major conduit of news, and one quite lucrative to traveling singers who otherwise would have struggled to make a living. Singing was also potentially very subversive – magistrates found it much more difficult to identify the composer of a seditious song than to close a print-shop. The more sophisticated and knowing could enjoy contemporary references at the theatre. Playgoing, with its repertoire of in-jokes and topical references, was an important arena of news in the larger cities. All these different locations played their part in a multi-media news world that coexisted with the new world of print.

These long-established habits of information exchange set a demanding standard for the new print media. We need to keep constantly in mind that in these centuries the communication of public business took place almost exclusively in communal settings. Citizens gathered to witness civic events, such as the arrival of notable visitors or the execution of notorious criminals. They heard official orders proclaimed by municipal or royal officials; they gathered around the church door to read ordinances or libels; they swopped rumors and sung topical songs. It is significant that in this age to ‘publish’ meant to voice abroad, verbally: books were merely ‘printed’. Printed news had both to encourage new habits of consumption – the private reading that had previously been an elite preserve – and to adopt the cadences and stylistic forms of these older oral traditions. Reading early news pamphlets, we can often hear the music of the streets, with all their hubbub and exuberant variety. Readers of early newspapers, in contrast, were offered the cloistered hush of the chancery. They were not to everybody’s taste.

News Men

The complexities of this trade called for agility on the part of those who hoped to make money from news. Many who tried were disappointed. Pamphlet publishing was highly competitive, and only those whose connections gave them access to reliable sources of information could expect to flourish. Many of the first newspapers were remarkably short-lived. Those that survived often did so with a discrete subsidy from the local prince – hardly a guarantee of editorial independence. For much of Defoe’s time writing the Review he was paid a secret retainer by one or other of England’s leading politicians to promote their policies. Sir Robert Walpole coped with a critical press by buying the newspapers and making them his mouthpiece. He went on to become England’s longest-serving eighteenth-century prime minister.

For most of this period there was not much money to be made from publishing news, and most of it went to those at the top of the trade. If some did grow rich, they were the proprietors: in the sixteenth century the publishers of the bespoke manuscript services, later the publishers of newspapers. A manuscript news-service was by and large the business of a single well-informed individual. As his reputation grew he might have found it necessary to employ an increasing number of scribes to make up the handwritten copies; but his was the sole editorial voice.

The first newspapers were put together in much the same way. The publisher was exclusively responsible for their content. His task was essentially editorial: gathering reports; bundling them up; passing them on. In many cases the publisher was the only person professionally involved in this stage of the production process. He employed no staff and no journalists in the modern sense. Much of the information that made up the copy of the first newspapers was provided free: information passing through the rapidly expanding European postal service or sent by correspondence. Some of the newspapers were quasi-official publications with close connections to local court officials, who provided access to reliable information from state papers. Publishers found other ways to augment the meagre pickings from cover-price sales and subscriptions. For many, advertising became the mainstay of the business model; for others, obliging politicians with their gifts, pensions or promises of office paved the way to a better life.

The nature of the newspapers and the means of their compilation left little scope for what we might regard as journalism. The reports were not long enough to leave room for much in the way of comment or commentary. As the newspapers became more established in the eighteenth century some publishers employed a few stringers, men who would hang around the law courts or stock exchange hoping to pick up snippets of publishable material. But such men seldom leave much of a mark in the records. Although we will meet some colorful characters in these pages, this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century – the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions – that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumor for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

The Sinews of Power

The more sophisticated news market that emerged during this period depended on the construction of a network of communications. Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries this too was steadily improved. The European postal networks became more intricate and more reliable. News reports became more frequent. It became easier to verify what one had heard from a second or third independent source. That this was possible was largely the result of the creation of far more efficient means of exchanging written communication over long distances. At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens. By the eighteenth century relatively ordinary citizens could travel, send and receive mail, or purchase news reports. The process of information exchange had been put on a rational commercial basis. Millions of communications now flowed along the arterial routes of European trade every year. News was abundant: now everyone could have an opinion, and many chose to express it.

In many respects the four prime considerations that governed the business of news – its speed, reliability, the control of content and entertainment value – were remarkably unchanging in these centuries. At different times one or other of these priorities would matter more to consumers of news than others; sometimes they would be in direct conflict. The truth was seldom as entertaining as tall stories; news men were often tempted to pass off the one as the other. But whatever the place and whatever the news medium, these four principles, speed, reliability, control and entertainment, express fairly succinctly the main concerns of those who gathered, sold and consumed the news.

The centuries with which this book is concerned witnessed a vast widening of horizons for Europe’s citizens. The discovery of the Americas and the creation of new trade routes to Asia brought a fresh relationship with distant continents. But while these new discoveries have done much to shape our perceptions of those periods, just as important at the time was the quiet incremental revolution that brought citizens in touch with the neighboring city, the capital and other countries in Europe. Sitting down to their weekly digest of news in any of a dozen European countries in 1750, men and women could experience the fascination of faraway events. They could obtain, through regular perusal, a sense of the leading personalities of European society, and the disposition of its powers. Four centuries previously such knowledge would have been far less widely shared. In this earlier period for the vast majority of citizens news of life outside the village, or the city walls, depended on chance encounters with strangers. Many such citizens would have little knowledge of the world beyond, unless directly affected by the local consequences of high politics or warfare. This was a very different time for news. What we do detect, however, even at this earlier date, is a hunger for information, even if it could only be satisfied for those in the highest reaches of politics and commerce. This was the same hunger that in the centuries that followed would set European society on the road towards a modern culture of communication.

Excerpted from "The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself" by Andrew Pettegree. Published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2014 by Andrew Pettegree. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 

By Andrew Pettegree

MORE FROM Andrew Pettegree

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks History Journalism Media Criticism News