The press as fake news is nothing new. According to the Danish Philosopher Søren Kirkegaard, the press is fake news almost by definition.
From the strong reactions the last year’s Holberg debate elicited, one would think that radical media criticism was something new and unheard of. Being an attack on democracy and a symptom of a society in decline; in short – something ‘Trumpian’. None of this is true. Press criticism is almost as old as the press itself, and among its many representatives are some of the finest thinkers, writers and statesmen in Western culture – one of them; a not so unknown Danish philosopher.
In the mid-1800s, Søren Kierkegaard was sitting in his Copenhagen home, writing furiously in his diary about a new phenomenon he called the «the daily press» His rage was partly personal, as Kierkegaard himself was a victim of its power.
In 1840, The Corsair – Denmark’s first satirical magazine of importance – had seen the light of the day. The controversial magazine was often confiscated by the authorities, but attracted many readers – among them; Kierkegaard himself. The magazine’s editor Meïr Aron Goldschmidt was a personal admirer of Kierkegaard and she had therefore spared him of the bitter satire other famous personalities were subjected to. The philosopher wanted no such special treatment, and in an article in the newspaper Fædrelandet (1845) he asked outright to make an appearance in The Corsair: «It is really hard for a poor writer to be thus singled out in Danish literature that he […] is the only one that is not scolded there.»
A figure of amusement
Had Kierkegaard known what he was asking for, he would probably have reconsidered his request. But his prayers were more than answered to. In the coming years, Kierkegaard became a recurring figure of amusement in the magazine. The one accusation that really struck a chord was the most banal of them all, namely the cartoonists suggestions that his trouser legs were of unequal length.
«The news is – by definition – what the press disseminates.»
The subtext here is obviously the caricature of the eccentric philosopher who, in order to stand out from the common herd, should dress differently. One might be forgiven for thinking that a philosopher of such historical significance would rise above spiteful comments about the length of his trouser legs, but Kierkegaard did care – and quite a lot so. Not so much because of the false claim itself (although he took the trouble of denying its veracity in his diary) as with the fact that it had become a «thing» in the eyes of the public. People – it turned out – cared too. They wanted to see if it was really true. They looked, and they laughed. After a while the attention became unbearable for Kierkegaard.
He had always tried to maintain an open and cordial relationship with the ‘man in the street’ while enjoying his ability to strike up a conversation with just about anyone. Now, all this was dislocated, disturbed and destroyed. In the eyes of the public the great philosopher had been reduced to a pair of trouser legs of dissimilar length, and the press was to blame.
Despite the personal starting point, Kierkegaard’s criticism of the press is above all general. To Kierkegaard the press is «fake news» almost by definition. The fake is not found in the content, but in the very form and format: «One complains that on occasion a single untrue article appears in a newspaper – oh what a trifle; no, the basic form of its entire communication is fake»
Even if what is written in the paper is true, it can still be «untrue» that it is in the paper, according to Kierkegaard.
Let us look closer at his line of reasoning. Kierkegaard’s press criticism, sporadically written down over a seven-year period, covers the years from 1847 till 1854 – presented here as four theses.
The dissemination is fake
This is a point Kierkegaard keeps coming back to in his diaries. The press is a disproportionate means of communication. The disproportionate lies in the mismatch between quality and quantity – to be more precise: what isn’t worth communicating is in a very short time spread to the masses via the press. («The masses» to Kierkegaard meant a few thousand. What would he have thought of today’s state of affairs?) Kierkegaard rejects the general notion held by his contemporaries, and as of today – that the press, on the whole, is a force for good, and that it only occasionally «causes […] injury by being misused to promote lies, evil, etc.» No, says Kierkegaard, the press is an evil «simply and solely on the basis of its power of dissemination», representing a form of lunacy that can be compared to crisscrossing an area of a few square kilometres with railway tracks, and it contributes to turning society into a «madhouse».
«The fake is not so much in the content, but in the very form and format itself.»
He illustrates his point with the following example: Let’s assume that the press mentions a young girl by name, informs us that she has been given a light blue dress, and that this is all true. It sounds innocent enough, but Kierkegaard characterises it as nothing less than «a liquidation of the young girl, something which might spell her death or cost her her sanity». The violation lies not so much in the story itself, but in the disproportionately widespread attention it gets. The involuntary attention and publicity, which thus comes the girl’s way, will – according to Kierkegaard – become unbearable. In other words, the pervasiveness of news is in itself an evil.
Public opinion is fake
One might get the impression that what a paper thinks of a topic is the same as what the public think of a topic. And if this wasn’t initially the case, then it certainly becomes so once the press has made its case. We refer to newspapers as creators of public opinion precisely because they tell us what to think about this or that.