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Fake news in Fort George

First office of the Fort George Tribune. Photo courtesy of The Exploration Place

Prince George has a rich and sometimes controversial history, some of the most interesting parts not well-known among its population. Not many people are aware of an extensive propaganda war in the early days of our city, the result of the bitter rivalry between the two frontier communities of South Fort George and Central Fort George. As we navigate a time where we have access to more information than ever before, including an alarming amount of misinformation and disinformation, it helps to look back through our history to learn how truth in media has changed over time. The media we choose to subscribe to influences our preconceptions and biases, dividing us politically and personally. “Fake news” is not that new. Though there are higher standards for truth in journalism today, sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe we shouldn’t always believe everything we read.

In its early years, Prince George was far from a cohesive community and more of a competitive group of small communities fighting for economic dominance. Much of the argument was rooted in South Fort George and Central Fort George attempting to influence the decision of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway as to the location for its railway station and subsequent community development. (Turns out, neither one got their way in the end.)

The competition between the two communities, the Grand Trunk Pacific, and the Natural Resources Security Company, ended up being fought between Fort George’s earliest newspapers. The Fort George Herald and the Fort George Tribune were partisan newspapers representing not necessarily their communities but special interest groups. The Fort George Tribune was the area’s first newspaper, founded in 1909 (and was, incidentally, edited by my own ancestor, Jack Quinn). The Tribune moved to Central Fort George in 1910, promoting Central Fort George as a “decent and healthful” community, as opposed to the hard-living townsite of South Fort George. It constantly attacked South Fort George, accusing its constituents of hard drinking, gambling, cheating, prostitution, and generally being a rough and uncivilized crowd that wanted little more than to open up as many brothels as possible throughout Fort George. (The fact was that there were actually more brothels in Central Fort George than in South Fort George, but who needs facts when you’re trying to make your case.) South Fort George was accused of being a “wildcat, promoted by bootleggers, tinhorns, friskers, and fourflushers.” The Herald, representing South Fort George, often wrote scathing editorials criticizing Central Fort George, The Tribune, the Natural Resources Security Company, land promoter George Hammond, and Prince George’s first mayor, W.G. Gillett. When Gillett won the election, the Herald wrote racist editorials blaming the outcome on the “foreign vote.”

Though most stories had an (albeit sometimes small) basis in reality, they were wildly exaggerated and contained some pretty colourful language and impressive mudslinging. There were indeed a lot of backroom dealings and some shady characters doing some shady stuff. But sometimes, these stories were outright personal attacks, slander, and lies, concocted to make someone look bad to voters or make one community more or less attractive to developers and potential new residents. The attacks were often even aimed at the other publication itself. Take, for example, this quote from the Herald regarding George Hammond and the Tribune: “Like the puling cur that returns to its vomit, the organ of the outside townsite interests [the Tribune] has again taken up the weary burden of its master, the promoter of doubtful fame who owns the body and soul of the townsite organ’s writers.” Yikes.

Eventually, George Hammond sued the Herald for libel, forcing the Herald’s John Daniell out of publishing. Investigations into Hammond’s business practices saw a decline of the Tribune—at one point Hammond even published a brochure that outright lied about the location of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway station. Both newspapers were eventually replaced by the independent Prince George Citizen, ending the highly partisan media presence in the city.

The Tribune and the Herald editors weren’t the only early newspapers to use fake news to increase circulation or further their own interests. This practice was called “yellow journalism” and was the “fake news” of the 19th and early 20th century. Like many of their era, Prince George’s early papers were almost entirely made up of opinion pieces. This distinction is still not always clear to media consumers even today. Political agendas and biases can creep in disguised as facts if the reader isn’t paying close attention. Cited sources can be a clue—if a wild claim is made in an article, but there is no source for this information, can you be sure it’s true? What about other media sources? Is anyone else making this claim, or is this purely the opinion of the writer? There is nothing wrong with opinion pieces, but ultimately they should be clearly labelled as such, so readers can recognize them for what they are. News articles should present a variety of viewpoints and contain observable and verifiable facts. The point of news is to keep us informed about current events, not to shock and deceive for the journalist’s own end.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that sensationalism sells—just look at FOX News. The internet, and particularly social media, have made it pretty apparent that some just aren’t as interested in facts as they are a particular agenda. Even the most critical of thinkers still have a hard time resisting clickbait. This prevalence of fake news and tabloid journalism has led a large portion of the public to distrust anything they read—a fact that is, and should be, disturbing.

Reputable media still doesn’t always get it right, and it is inevitable that personal or institutional biases can sometimes influence the way news is reported. But we can be grateful that most journalists strive for honesty, impartiality, and accountability rather than using gossip and speculation to slander and turn the public against their perceived enemies. We can trust our present-day media more than Fort Georgians in the early 1900s could trust their newspapers, thankfully. But we still need to be on the lookout for those on the journalistic fringes who intentionally try to deceive and undermine public trust. Each one of us must be responsible for informing ourselves, and sometimes that means taking what we read with a massive grain of salt.

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