J.C. Moore Online
Current Events from a Science Perspective

Mank: A Warning about Fake News

“Though Mank was about the writing of Citizen Kane in 1934, it carries a valuable lesson about fake news that is relevant today.”

Mank is a movie about the life of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who collaborated with Orson Welles to write Citizens Kane. Citizen Kane was modeled on the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Mank explores Hearst’s longtime friendship with one of Hollywood’s most powerful studio moguls, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. Hearst’s newspapers helped Mayer ensure the success of his Hollywood films and stars for decades. Citizen Kane, though, was a most unflattering look at Hollywood’s powerbrokers. Before it was released, Mayer offered RKO, the studio that produced it, a million dollars if they would destroy it. Though that was a fortune in 1934 dollars, it is fortunate that RKO refused the offer. Citizens Kane has been acclaimed as one of the best movies of all time.

In his newspapers, Hearst had a reputation for going after anyone whom he wanted to target. One theme of the movie was Hearst and Mayer’s machinations to defeat Upton Sinclair in his 1934 campaign for governor of California. Sinclair had won national acclaim for his 1906 novel, The Jungle. It exposed the abuse of slaughterhouse workers and showed he was certainly no friend of the wealthy and powerful. The state’s Republican establishment, led by Hearst’s California-based papers and Mayer’s Hollywood studios, decided to do whatever it took to defeat Sinclair. They not only considered Sinclair a socialist, but they also feared his promises to raise their taxes. Back then, Mayer was the highest-salaried executive in the nation and the finance chair of the national Republican Party. Mayer was portrayed in the movie as using the Great Depression as an excuse to extort large salary cuts from the writers and actors guilds.

It was no great stretch, then, when Hearst’s California newspapers began running stories in 1934 that “reported” on Sinclair’s plans to expropriate small shops and homes – but Sinclair actually had no plans to do so. Perhaps the most consequential element of the campaign against Sinclair was a series of fake newsreels created by Hollywood film producer Irving Thalberg. These videos, featured “reporters” speaking to “people on the street,” many of whom were actually small-time Hollywood actors reciting scripted remarks. Well-dressed individuals criticized Sinclair and praised his opponent. And there was footage of men jumping from freight cars, which the newsreel narrators said were shots of dangerous “hobos” arriving in California in anticipation of a Sinclair regime that would pay them to live off the state. The “hobos” were actually from footage taken from the movie, The Wild Boys.

The videos depicted Merriam supporters as good, solid Americans and Sinclair supporters as foreign-accented Bolsheviks.  This material was bundled together and presented as regular newsreels to the millions of Californians who went to the movies every week. It was all fake, but the public bought it – there it was in the newsreels. Thus bolstered, Merriam staged a remarkable come-from-behind victory in November’s general election.

Ironically, Mankiewicz was one of the very first film industry figures to sound the alarm about fake news. He penned an anti-Hitler drama in the month following the Nazis coming to power in 1933, which predicted the murderous violence of the then-fledgling Third Reich. He wrote a script about the fake news that Josef Goebbels had produced and the anti-Semitic falsehoods that played a central role in the Nazis’ rise to power.  Mankiewicz tried to find a studio with the courage to produce it, but the studios wouldn’t as they feared the loss of their German market. Too bad, Mankiewicz’s script would certainly have made a timely movie, alerting the world to the dangers of Nazism. It should still be a warning to democracies today, about the fake news created by extremists on the far right.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment