Fake news, seemingly the major theme of American political debate over the past year, has the urgent feel of a new problem. It is not — it has afflicted us for decades.
This is in no place more evident than in the first modern media war, the Spanish Civil War, which erupted in July of 1936 when a cadre of right-wing generals opposed to the policies of the left-wing government of Spain decided to take control of the country by force. The resulting war would last for three years and take hundreds of thousands of lives. It would be also something of a preview, as it were, of World War II. It was one of the most divisive and important world events of the 1930’s.
The Spanish Civil War was covered by the press in new (and, as noted, not entirely good) ways. There were two primary spurs to this. The first was political: the unprecedented access granted by the Republicans to journalists. The government under the trade unionist Francisco Largo Caballero believed (incredibly quixotically, if you’ll pardon the pun) that telling their story would be an important political tool for them. They allowed journalists to have access to the battlefields and to to embed themselves with troops across Spain. The second was technological: for the first time, journalists had powerful, speedy, handheld cameras — battlefield ready. They had fast film. They had radio. They had the telegraph. As a result, millions of people around the world suddenly could have a you-are-there experience of this local war.
The famed American writer Ernest Hemingway was one of the correspondents who came to Spain to help deliver this experience. He was between novels. He was not sure what was happening with his own life. He felt at a standstill and was looking to recharge himself. He said to a friend, "It seems to me that Spain might be the big parade happening all over again." He wanted to cover the war because he felt that it might recharge his creative batteries. He managed to wrangle a very lucrative contract with the North American Newspaper Association that sent him to Spain. Because he was covering the Spanish government's side of the fighting — and because he was temperamentally inclined that way himself — he also felt that he should take the government's side in a political sense.
He was not only there to report stories — he had also agreed to write the screenplay for a government-sponsored documentary film called The Spanish Earth, which was going to tell the story of Spanish peasants whose lives were being made better by this war. This was an arguable assumption all by itself, but almost beside the point in context: the film is largely fictitious. Almost everything in it is made up.
Hemingway, while he was in Spain, did not actually manage to tell the truth in a way that he wanted to. He appeared at a gathering at Carnegie Hall in New York to promote The Spanish Earth and told the assembled crowd, "It's very dangerous to write the truth in war. Truth is very dangerous to come by." Yet he himself was probably the first sinner in this respect. He bent the truth in his Spanish dispatches. He would represent himself as having been at events that he was not at, as being at the center of battles that he was not at the center of. Crucially, he presented the battle for the Casa del Campo in Madrid as a turning point in the war. It was, instead, an inconclusive skirmish he witnessed from afar. He did, however, get paid a great deal for writing the dispatch recounting his “experience.”
Another major fabulist in this line was the Soviet secret agent Otto Katz. Polyglot, journalist, and provocateur, Katz was also an incredible and brilliant propagandist. He was the inventor of the Agence Espagne, a combination spy ring and news service centered in Paris that was meant to act as a broker for news from the Spanish Republic. Katz teamed with the British journalist (and devout Communist) Claud Cockburn and made up — in order to influence the French premier into backing the Republicans via arms shipments — a firefight for a city in French North Africa called Tetouan.
Katz had never been to Tetouan. He had to read guide books in order to know what the streets were. Soon, “news” of the battle began to leak out through Katz’s own carefully orchestrated press reports, and the French government reversed its policy and allowed munitions to be sent to Spain.
With talents like Hemingway and Katz on its side, this kind of falsehood enjoyed a great deal of success in the global media. But not every reporter observing the end of the Spanish Republic was so careless with the truth.
One such was Virginia Cowles, a reporter for the Hearst Newspaper Syndicate. Cowles, a 23-year-old former debutante possessing no foreign reporting experience, nonetheless had an extraordinary instinct as a reporter. When she heard the story of how a city in northern Spain had been either bombed or possibly burned down by its own residents, she wanted to find out what had really happened. She traveled, with incredible difficulty and by a very circuitous route, to get to the Basque country and do just that.
What she discovered was that although the Nationalist rebels reported that this city had been burned by provocateurs acting on behalf of the Republican government, it had in fact been strafed and firebombed by the Condor Legion, a unit of Nazi German aircraft fighting alongside the Nationalists. She finally found a member of the Legion who said to her, "We bombed it and bombed it and bombed it. Bueno, why not? It's war, no?"
Robert Capa, the legendary photographer, came to Spain via Hungary, Germany, and Paris. Capa was an anti-fascist emigré from Hungary. He arrived in Madrid determined to report what he thought was the real story coming out of Spain: the victorious effort of the Spanish government to hold off the revolt of the fascist generals. It was a slow news month when he got there. There was really nothing to photograph in general, let alone anything that served this cause. So he staged a scene: he rounded up some locals to get in a car and wave flags. It’s no shock that he also was working for Henry Luce's The March of Time newsreel series. The publishing magnate Luce used to say he believed in “fakery in allegiance to the truth.”
During a trip to Córdoba, Capa was still looking for meaningful action to photograph. Again, he found nothing noteworthy happening there. So, as he did in Madrid, he staged a picture: he convinced a group of militiamen to fake a battle. They would run up a hill, he would take photographs of them, and he would send the photographs back to Paris. People would see what he hoped they would think was actual warfare. In the course of this staged battle, one of the soldiers was actually shot by a Nationalist sniper. Real news had invaded fake news.
The photograph changed Capa's life in more ways than one. It was the picture that made him famous worldwide. He became known as one of the foremost combat photographers of all time. It also changed him internally.
He realized that the most important thing was not what he wanted his pictures to say — not their political content. Rather, they needed to tell the truth. He exposed himself after this epiphany to incredible amounts of personal risk and danger, and took photographs such as his famous image of a dead militiaman in a tree. Capa took this picture amid an actual firefight, where he was actually risking his life. It is hard to think of a starker contrast to Hemingway watching the fighting on the Casa del Campo through binoculars.
This was all over and done with before 1940. But we still have a problem with malleable media. As long as the technology to create and distribute mass media exists — be it newsreels or Facebook pages — fakers will have the means. As long as political and military contests exist, they will have the motive and opportunity. This is not something that we invented. It's been around forever. The only way we can combat it is by finding people who will go after the story no matter what, who will pursue the truth whatever it takes. The way Capa did. The way Virginia Cowles did. Until that happens, truth really is going to be very dangerous to come by.
Amanda Vaill’s books include Everybody Was So Young and Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.