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History Forum: The history of fake news in the U.S.

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The New York Times building
The New York Times building is seen in September 2018 in New York.
Angela Weiss | AFP | Getty Images 2018

We conclude our MPR winter member drive with a program about the importance of independent journalism.

Loyola University-Chicago history professor Michelle Nickerson was featured recently at the Minnesota Historical Society's "History Forum."

She tells us about the centuries-long history of "fake news" in the United States.

Beginning with the partisan newspapers in the earliest days of the new country, she takes us through the sensationalized "yellow journalism" of the late 19th century on to the 20th century when journalists established their first code of ethics — and to the elusive search for "truth" and "facts" in today's cable news and social media landscape. 

Thomas Jefferson said the press had become "servile to the government," Nickerson says, and newspapers were used as a vehicle for political organizing and advocacy. 

Newspapers were often funded by investors to support their own political interests.

Later, journalists began to see their role as reformers.

For a long time, newspapers have sensationalized the news in order to compete for readers. 

Journalists in the 20th century began to see themselves as professionals and established a code of conduct. Some believed they had a responsibility to put the welfare of society before the profits of the media owners, Nickerson said. 

The rise of cable news and the massive growth in news distribution via social media are both having a major — and often negative — impact on truth and fact-based journalism, Nickerson suggests. 

Michelle Nickerson spoke in St. Paul at the Minnesota Historical Society's "History Forum" on Jan. 12.