Will Fake News Triumph Over Verifiable Truth?

The 45th President of the United States Donald Trump (right) and legendary entertainer Liberace: What do they have in common with Founding Father Thomas Jefferson?

So sound is the ring of some pronouncements that many assume they could only have come from God Almighty. For example: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Sounds so biblical, doesn’t it? Actually, the quoted line is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, as is: “An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek, a goodly apple rotten to the heart. Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

If the hardly apostolic Howard Stern had convinced not only himself and countless fellow countrymen he was “King of all Media,” if a significant number continue to believe Al Gore invented the Internet just so the Kardashians might at will break it, why then would they not also believe the President of the United States when he says unflattering references to him are “fake news” invented by evil people determined to prevent him from making America great again?

At a Florida rally last weekend he seemed to ramp up his anti-press spiel several notches when he reassured placard-bearing, chanting worshippers that he was not the first U.S. President to be constantly vilified by the evil conspiracy that is the American press, that no less a figure than the numinous Thomas Jefferson was in his time convinced that “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”

Actually the above quoted line was part of Jefferson’s response to a young man who had sought career advice from the third President of the United States. “It would be a great favor, too,” 17-year-old John Norvell had written, “to have your opinion of the manner in which a newspaper, to be most extensively beneficial, should be conducted, as I expect to become the publisher of one for a few years.”

Jefferson’s response: “To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted so as to be most useful, I should answer, ‘by restraining it to true facts and sound principles only.’ Yet I fear such a newspaper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Notwithstanding Jefferson’s skeptical appraisal, John Norvell had gone on to become the editor of the Baltimore Whig and one of the first U.S. senators from Michigan. In all events it was also Thomas Jefferson who, several years after his letter to the teenaged Norvell, would write: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

It turns out that Jefferson, when he wrote to the teenager, was embittered by reports spread by his political opponents that he had slept with one of his slaves, 16-year-old Sally Hemings. (Recent DNA testing has concluded that her six children are indeed connected to the Jefferson bloodline.)

While he had often underscored the important role of a free press in a democratic society, Jefferson’s attitude toward newspapers underwent a sea change after they painted a negative picture of him leading up to his inauguration as President— reminiscent of the present occupier of the White House who had enjoyed a particularly cosy relationship with the media until he declared himself a candidate for the office of President of the United States. By the time he’d duked it out on TV with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, “blood coming out of her eyes and her wherever”; by the time he’d outpaced “low-energy” Jeb Bush and shoved fellow Republican runners out of the race to the White House—and declared Hillary “crooked” and too weak to stand up to rapists, whether Mexican or from Wall Street, let alone ISIS—there were few among his supporters not irrevocably convinced the press existed only to do America harm!

The Sally Hemings story that reportedly had soured Jefferson’s relationship with the newspapers of his day, albeit not for long, reminds me of the time legendary American entertainer Liberace sued the Daily Mirror columnist William Connor for libel. Under his pen name Cassandra, Connor had strongly hinted that Liberace was a homosexual, then illegal in the United Kingdom. The year was 1959.

This was how Connor-Cassandra described the highly popular American entertainer in his newspaper column: “. . . the summit of sex, the pinnacle of masculine, feminine and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want . . . a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.”

According to expert legal analysts, the case partly hinged on the term “fruit-flavoured” as fruit is an American slang term for homosexual. Connor denied he was familiar with this usage. As for Liberace, he denied he was gay, stating: “I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society.”

Liberace was awarded eight thousand pounds, “the largest libel settlement for any case in British legal history.” The trial was described as “one of the most sensational libel cases of the century.”

Fast forward to 1982, when Scott Thorson, Liberace’s 22-year-old former chauffeur, sued Liberace for $113 million in palimony after he was let go by the entertainer. Again Liberace denied he was homosexual; he insisted Thorson was never his lover. The case was settled out of court in 1986.

In 2013 Steven Soderbergh directed Behind the Candelabra, about the last ten years in the life of the pianist Liberace, with particular emphasis on his sexual relationship with Thorson. The movie starred Michael Douglas as the pianist, Matt Damon and recently deceased Debbie Reynolds. Yet another initially fake-news story that turned out to be nothing but the truth.

All of which goes to show how on the button was Paul Theroux, author of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, from which is taken the following:  “So much of life is mumbling shadows and the future is just silence and darkness. But time passes by, time’s torch illuminates, it finds connections, it makes sense of confusion, it reveals the truth. And you hardly know the oddness of life until you have lived a little. Then you get it. You are older, looking back. For a period you understand and can say, I see it all clearly. I remember everything.”

As I write, his more poisonous Facebook detractors are busy spewing their uninformed reaction to a posted address purporting to have been delivered by the prime minister at Independence. As it turns out, still more fake news!

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