Author and editor Elizabeth Mitchell (Ceridwen Morris)
Author and editor Elizabeth Mitchell talks about the interview process and writing. (Ceridwen Morris)

428. Fake news, presidential deception and the Civil War

A president decides, in a moment of widespread political unrest, that the best course of action in the nation’s greatest interest is having journalists arrested for sharing a story that contained purposely false information.

A cutting-edge form of instant communication that people dreamed would unite a nation on the brink of disaster proved to be a wedge between the citizenry, driving friends further apart.

Powerful political leaders writing articles for newspapers and other outlets, under anonymous of false bylines, to garner votes and sway support for their actions of choice.

In researching her latest book, Elizabeth Mitchell found all this and more modern-day chaos — from 1864.

The book, Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House, details a series of incidents that could just as easily — or believably — be happening right now.

Mitchell’s career has included stints at Spin and George, but she admits she tried to get out of journalism classes in college because she wasn’t interested in being a reporter.

“I explained I would never need to get that education because that wasn’t what I was planning on being,” she says. “I was very interested in writing, I loved books.”

Still, Mitchell oversaw political and investigative pieces at Spin for a number of years, including hiring William Vollmann to cover the drug trade in Burma and the Bosnian war, and Elizabeth Gilbert, who landed on Mitchell’s radar after Bob Guccione Jr., the magazine’s founder, mentioned Gilbert wrote pretty interesting short stories. “She went all over the place and handed in perfect copy,” Mitchell recalls.

After working at Spin, Mitchell was headhunted to join the team at George and worked for several years alongside John F. Kennedy Jr.

But it’s the interview process that keeps her writing and reporting and researching.

“Fiction writers say the characters took over and surprised me — I could never get myself to the point of being surprised” when trying to write fiction, Mitchell says. “In non-fiction, people are constantly surprising you. There have been times I’ve interviewed people for many days, hours and hours of long conversation, and just as you’re about to hang up, they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, there’s this one other thing.’ It’s always that (thing) that turns the story in this incredible way. I can’t get enough of that experience. I find it so exciting that you can go in and you have a license to talk to anyone you’d like and you can ask anything you’re curious about and you can tell that story to anyone.”

It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined by author and editor Elizabeth Mitchell to talk about the interview process and how 1864 is more like 2020 than most people realize. Mitchell also discusses her new book, Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House

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