Review of The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America by Mark Arsenault

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War magnifies the appetites of news consumers and creates journalistic stars, blessing them with fame and fortune. So it was with the one who called himself John Revelstoke Rathom, today a character who is barely remembered and who briefly occupied a prominent place in American journalism of the second decade of the 20th century. Rathom’s entertaining and deceptive career, including as editor of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island, is the subject of “The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America” ​​by Mark Arsenault.

At the Journal, Rathom attracted attention by publishing lively reports and editorials criticizing what he called covert efforts by the Central Powers, led by Germany and Austria-Hungary, to discourage American involvement in the war these countries had launched against Britain, France and their allies in July 1914. Rathom’s Journal claimed numerous “exclusives” about the nefarious machinations of the Germans and Austrians determined to keep America out of the war . As was common at the time, other newspapers republished Journal articles deemed unique.

So readers of The New York Times, for example, have grown accustomed to a line at the top of those sensational Journal articles that promises, “The Providence Journal will say tomorrow…”. factories producing goods that could help the British war effort. Sometimes the articles were accurate and factual, sometimes totally made up.

Many of Rathom’s scoops relied on a few sources he had cultivated, including young American civil servant A. Bruce Bielaski, who headed a new Justice Department agency called the Bureau of Investigation, precursor to J. Edgar’s FBI Hoover. Rathom also exploited the espionage of Emanuel Voska, a Czech American who became an aggressive and effective spy working to undermine the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally Germany. Voska spied for Czech patriots who hoped that the war would eventually dissolve the Austro-Hungarian Empire and create an independent Czech government (which eventually happened).

Rathom, a born self-aggrandizer, claimed that the information provided by his sources resulted from enterprising reporting by himself and Providence Journal reporters. At one point, he suggested his team cracked German codes and read German diplomatic mail. Rathom created a reputation for being a super detective, then took advantage of it. Even President Woodrow Wilson sought to meet him.

Once the United States entered the war in 1917, Rathom enthusiastically cultivated his celebrity role. He gave speeches across the country bragging about his role and the Journal’s role in leading America to war. He was adored in editorials from coast to coast by newspapers eager to create heroes in America’s First World War.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called Rathom “one of America’s most remarkable men”. The Boston Globe said, “The name of John R. Rathom is known from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific as the man who alone and unaided…fought the secret and diplomatic agents of Germany to a standstill. , exposed their plots, intrigues and propaganda and finally led the ark. conspirators out of the country.

Editorial writers seemed indifferent to the black xenophobia that Rathom peddled with his denunciations of German-speaking powers. The Providence Journal published a daily warning that “every German or Austrian in the United States…unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy.”

But Rathom had gained suspicion about his own mysterious origins and loyalties. Arsenault, who started his career at the Providence Journal and is now at the Boston Globe, is having a wonderful time sharing the story of how he unearthed details of Rathom’s life that were nothing like the versions he was told. he hawked.

Arsenault is particularly – and justifiably – proud to have discovered that Rathom, a member of the Church of England in all his biographical statements during his years in America, was in fact a member of an Australian Jewish family named Solomon. The brothers Vaiben and Emanuel Solomon had been the first of Rathom’s ancestors to migrate from England to Australia in 1817 – unwittingly. A judge in Durham, England, sentenced the Solomon boys to seven years hard labor in an Australian penal colony, their punishment for petty theft.

After serving their sentence, the Solomon brothers prospered in Australia, and other Solomons from England came to join them. One fathered a boy named John Pulver Solomon, born July 4, 1868, probably in Melbourne. Although no one knew for decades, this boy became American journalist John Rathom.

With great panache, Arsenault recounts John Pulver Solomon’s journey from Australia in Hong Kong to Vancouver, where Solomon adopted the name John Revelstoke Rathom. In his new guise, Rathom traveled to San Francisco, then to Cuba, where he served as a correspondent during the Spanish–American War, and finally to Providence, where he served as editor, then editor.

The young immigrant found his first job in journalism in 1889 at the Daily Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia. Handsome and sturdy boy, he is getting married soon. He also borrowed money from colleagues and friends that he could not repay. He got in trouble with the police. He and his wife fled to Oregon, then to San Francisco, where he got a job at the Chronicle.

The marriage did not last, but the career in journalism did. Rathom was a good journalist and a gifted writer. As Arsenault tells it, Rathom’s story is engaging but sometimes confusing. The author recounts a life of tips by writing a book with a number of his own tips. It can be hard to follow, but it’s never boring.

Perhaps one of the reasons Rathom almost disappeared from history is that his crusade against Germany and Austria-Hungary ultimately had little impact on the key development of World War I – the American decision in 1917 to go to war alongside Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy.

When war broke out in 1914, American public opinion opposed U.S. involvement, but over time opinion shifted sharply against Germany and its allies. Americans were angered by German aggressiveness, especially U-boat attacks on non-military shipping in the Atlantic, including the sinking in 1915 of the British liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. A German torpedo sank the ship, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, including more than 120 Americans. From then on, American sympathy for the Franco-British cause grew and when Wilson, the popular president re-elected in 1916, spoke out in favor of American entry, he enjoyed broad support. Wilson did not need Rathom’s help to sell the war, although he welcomed it.

Ultimately, the lesson of this colorful story is a familiar one: high-profile impostors and fakers usually get their rewards eventually. Justice Department officials, angered by Rathom’s stories, editorials and public speeches that implied they had been negligent in not disrupting German intelligence operations in America, brought him down, l eventually forcing him to confess that he had invented the sources and stories that made him famous.

When this confession was made public, Rathom’s inflated reputation crumbled. The newspapers seemed particularly keen to distance themselves from a deceased colleague who had recently been a prominent member of their fraternity. His inventions, wrote the New York World, had “few parallels in the annals of lies.”

Robert G. Kaiser is a former editor of the Washington Post.

The Press, Propaganda, and the Journalist Who Fought for the Spirit of America

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