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VIRTUAL BOOK TALK: The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman who Battled for the Minds of America
Mark Arsenault in conversation with Adam Reilly
Russia was not the first foreign power to subvert American popular opinion from inside. In the lead-up to America’s entry into the First World War, Germany spent the modern equivalent of one billion dollars to infiltrate American media, industry, and government to undermine the supply chain of the Allied forces. If not for the ceaseless activity of John Revelstoke Rathom, editor of the scrappy Providence Journal, America may have remained committed to its position of neutrality. But Rathom emerged to galvanize American will, contributing to the conditions necessary for President Wilson to request a Declaration of War from Congress—all the while exposing sensational spy plots and getting German diplomats expelled from the U.S.
And yet John Rathom was not even his real name. His swashbuckling biography was outrageous fiction. And his many acts of journalistic heroism, which he recounted to rapt audiences on nationwide speaking tours, never happened. Who then was this great, beloved, and ultimately tragic imposter?
In The Imposter’s War, Mark Arsenault unearths the truth about Rathom’s origins and revisits a surreal and too-little-known passage in American history that reverberates today. The story of John Rathom encompasses the propaganda battle that set America on a course for war. He rose within the editorial ranks, surviving romantic scandals and combative rivals, eventually transitioning from an editor to a de facto spy. He brought to light the Huerta plot (in which Germany tried to push the United States and Mexico into a war) and helped to upend labor strikes organized by German agents to shut down American industry.
Rathom was eventually brought low by an up-and-coming political star by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Arsenault tracks the rise and fall of this enigmatic figure, while providing the rich and fascinating context of Germany’s acts of subterfuge through the early years of World War I.
The Imposter's War is a riveting and spellbinding narrative of a flawed newsman who nevertheless changed the course of history.
Mark Arsenault has covered national politics, gambling, and worked on Spotlight Team investigations as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. This is his first nonfiction book.
Adam Reilly is a reporter at WGBH News. He reports for WGBH-TV's Greater Boston and for WGBH 89.7 FM, and also hosts The Scrum, WGBH News' political podcast. Adam previously worked for the Boston Phoenix and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He's a graduate of Carleton College and Harvard Divinity School.
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