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“Fake news” isn’t new. A century ago, one incident drove country into a frenzied celebration. The news was just wrong, that’s all. Here’s how it happened.

Mankind had never seen anything like World War I. It featured such horrors as poison gas, bombs dropped from the sky and machine guns. More than 70 million people from 32 countries fought. Over 17 million died, another 20 million were wounded.

People desperately wanted the war to end. When November 1918 arrived, it seemed peace was finally within sight.

Which is where Roy Howard enters the story. He was president of United Press (later United Press International), a news service locked in fierce competition with rival Associated Press.

With the war winding down, Howard was in Brest, France, on Nov. 7, meeting with Admiral Henry Wilson, commander of American naval forces there.

Exactly what happened next is fuzzy. Wilson had just received word (either in a telegram or by phone) from a friend at the American Embassy in Paris saying an armistice had been signed that morning. The war was over!

As a former reporter, I know journalists spend their entire career waiting for a scoop that big. Howard had it all to himself.

He asked Wilson if it was okay to report the news. Sure, the admiral said.

Howard flew to the nearest telegraph office, where he violated UP’s own rules. All dispatches coming from France were to be signed by Howard and William Simms, UP’s foreign editor. But Simms was 375 miles away in Paris. Waiting to reach him would jeopardize the exclusive.

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So Howard simply forged Simms’ signature and sent these words:

“URGENT – ARMISTICE ALLIES SIGNED ELEVEN [this morning] – HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO [this afternoon] HOWARD-SIMMS.”

The news hit New York like a bomb. Wall Street suspended trading at 1 p.m. Stores closed, with one merchant posting in his window, “Too happy to work. Come back tomorrow!” Traffic stopped as crowded streets turned into impromptu block parties. Of course, alcohol flowed very, very freely.

The word Americans, and all people the world over, had longed to hear was finally being said: Peace.

Except it wasn’t. Across the Atlantic, war still raged in France. Admiral Wilson’s friend had merely passed along a rumor. Howard hadn’t bothered to confirm it.

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When the news reached Washington, Secretary of State Robert Lansing practically tripped over himself issuing a denial. It hit the wires at 2:15 p.m.

But people rejected it. They clung to what they wanted to believe, that the war was indeed over, and they weren’t going to let anyone take it away from them. Angry mobs destroyed copies of newspapers that ran the denial and even briefly attacked the Associated Press’ New York office when it couldn’t confirm an armistice.

Celebrations lasted all night across the country.

Yet by the next morning, there could be no denying it. Men were still fighting and dying in the trenches. The UP had it wrong.

The New York Times called it “the most flagrant and culpable act of public deception” in the history of journalism. The New York Evening Sun gloated that it hadn’t reported the “fake news” as fact.

Every school child knows the armistice was actually signed a few days later “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

With the war really and truly over, Americans did it all over again. The so-called “False Armistice” of Nov. 7 had merely been a dress rehearsal for the real party on Nov. 11.

As for Roy Howard, he wiped the egg off his face and soldiered on. He headed the E.W. Scripps Company in 1920, which later became the Scripps Howard newspaper and broadcasting chain. He even interviewed Josef Stalin in the Kremlin in 1936. Still, when Howard retired in 1953 his big mistake from 35 years earlier still hounded him.

“Fake news” has been around a long time, and likely will still exist a long time from now, too. That’s a fact.

J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, “Holy Cow! History,” can be read at jmarkpowell.com.

If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.



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