Fake News. Long before Kellyanne Conway regaled us with her take on “alternative facts” and then-president-elect Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN, there was another word for a mass media market dominated by hyperbole and falsities: unechte korrespondenz.
The German phrase, meaning a “fake foreign correspondent’s letter,” would become a well-known trick of the mid-19th-century publishing trade, which, like today, had just undergone a seismic shift. The art was perfected by a pharmacist turned author, who would one day become known as the Charles Dickens of Prussia.
While lies have existed since a certain apple was eaten from a certain tree, the seeds for widely circulated fake news were first planted in the early 1800s. The advent of a mechanized printing press had suddenly lowered the cost of entry for all would-be news conveyors, while the telegraph, arriving midcentury, would greatly expand their reach. For the first time, routinely printing information was lucrative, but with added circulation came additional competitors. In turn, publishers were desperate to both create content and differentiate it for readers. “That is the moment where you can see where fake news becomes possible on a grand scale,” says Petra S. McGillen, a Dartmouth College professor specializing in German literature.
It was into that environment that Theodor Fontane, a former apothecary in the mold of his father, returned to Berlin, in 1860.
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