January 24, 2017: Fake News & the Fillmore Bathtub

We’ve heard a lot lately about fake news, and I suspect that before long we’ll be hearing, and hearing about, a lot more. Sadly, dishonest journalism is actually a time-honored American institution. Thus far anyway, newspapers and other media outlets in the United States have been censored by the Government only during periods of outright war, and so for most of our history—during peacetime at least—the only way anyone could piece together a complete picture on any controversial subject was to buy and read three or four newspapers of varying political slants. After the end of World War II the Federal Communications Commission attempted to impose some reason and balance on the journalistic process by introducing and enforcing the so-called Fairness Doctrine, requiring media outlets to give print and air time to differing opinions about political controversies, and for as long as it lasted the Fairness Doctrine worked well. The FCC abolished it in the mid-eighties due to conservative pressure and Congress then attempted to codify its precepts as law, but Ronald Reagan vetoed the effort. Since then, journalism has gradually devolved to the Wild West Show that we know today, all in the name of Free Speech. If everyone had the presence of mind to check several newspapers and networks before trying to form an opinion of his or her own, things might not be so bad, but the prevailing ethic nowadays seems to be simply to believe whatever you want to; it’s all legitimate.

In times like these we would do well to keep in mind the greatest literary hoax ever perpetrated in the history of American journalism: “A Neglected Anniversary,” newspaper writer H. L. Mencken’s spurious history of the bathtub, published initially within the heavy censorship confines of World War I. Mencken’s essay first appeared in a New York City paper on December 28, 1917,claiming that the first American bathtub had been installed in a home in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1842 by a man who had traveled widely in Europe and had acquired the habit of regular bathing there. The event was supposed to have sparked widespread argument against bathing, with politicians claiming that the bathtub was a decadent European invention that had no place in republican America and physicians warning that washing might give a careless bather all manner of fatal diseases. In early 1851 the bathtub’s cause was supposed to have been saved, however, by the thirteenth President of the United States. Millard Fillmore—and what better name for a bathtub supporter than that?—visited Cincinnati, took a bath in the historic pioneer tub, and then had one installed in the White House. After Fillmore’s brave and progressive example, regular tub bathing caught on in the United States.

Not even Mencken himself could have anticipated the readiness with which the public swallowed his cock-and-bull story. It was printed, reprinted, quoted, and taken for law and Gospel by virtually everyone who read or heard of it. Within a few years’ time it had even worked its way into legitimate history books, no one seemingly ever pausing to consider how utterly ridiculous the tale really was. Eight years after Mencken first published the piece he confessed his hoax and claimed that it had only been a joke, but it’s suspected that he wrote it for a more serious purpose: to see just how far he could go in making the American public believe and perpetuate a baldfaced lie. And since the story continued to circulate for decades even after his retraction, and is in fact still quoted by some sources as truth, it’s hard to say whether he was more amused, or more disgusted, by the results of his experiment.

H. L. Mencken was such anoutspoken, pessimistic critic of human nature that he made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Bible Belt. The Arkansas legislature actually once passed a resolution to pray for his soul, although the legislators introduced themeasure only after they learned that they couldn’t force the Federal Government to deport him to Germany. His crimes? Such literary gems as this, written during Warren G. Harding’s Presidential campaign in 1920:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

I suppose that, if this were ever to happen, we must hope that the leader in question should at least have a smarter daughter and son-in-law.



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