September 26, 2023


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You don’t want to miss Mark Arsenault’s new book

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Leading off

There isn’t a more gifted writer in America than my colleague Mark Arsenault, who used to be at The Providence Journal and is now on our Spotlight investigative team at the Globe.

If you enjoy reading Mark’s stories, you’ll love his upcoming book, “The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Newsman who Battled for the Minds of America.” It comes out April 5, so make sure you buy it.

It’s about a former Providence Journal editor, John Rathom, who led the effort to expose Germany’s effort to infiltrate the American media during World War I, but had plenty of skeletons in his closet.

There’s lots of Rhode Island in the book, so I asked Mark to tell us more.

Q: With all eyes on Russian propaganda, it seems like you couldn’t have timed your book release better. Why is it so relevant right now?

Arsenault: Somebody is always trying to manipulate how we think. In both Russia’s meddling in US elections and its attack on Ukraine, Russian agents used the same propaganda playbook Germany deployed against the US before America entered WWI. That was what Rathom was fighting.

These tactics include fabricated news articles, covert agents pretending to represent voter groups that do not actually exist, and false-flag operations. Only the technology has evolved. It is now more convenient for Russian agents at computers in St. Petersburg to recruit unwitting Americans into Russian-led political groups over social media. The WWI-era Germans actually had to send people here by ship.

Q: John Rathom isn’t exactly a household name in American journalism, but you’ve painted a fascinating, if complicated, portrait of him in your book. How the heck did he end up in Rhode Island?

Arsenault: He came to Providence largely on the back of scandals. He was a reporter in Canada, but fled to the US just ahead of policemen coming to arrest him for extortion. He left his job in San Francisco after his wife and his lover became embroiled in an attempted murder scheme that generated breathless news coverage.

Next, he wrote brilliantly in Chicago, but was lured from newspapers by a propaganda firm for the railroad industry. When that clandestine operation was exposed, Rathom was again unemployed. He was job hunting in New York when he heard the Providence Journal’s staff had been raided by a rival and the paper had openings.

Q: I’m curious if you think there’s a modern-day version of Rathom, and what that means for all of us.

Arsenault: It’s hard to imagine there’s a modern media figure who is in fact an imposter, hiding a deep secret behind a fake name and phony biography. There are characters who remind me of parts of Rathom. He was a nationally known member of the mainstream news industry, like a Jake Tapper, but also a massive star who would fall hard from grace, Lance Armstrong-style.

Rathom participated in as much espionage as he exposed, and there’s just no obvious parallel for a journalist/spy. As a propagandist and political trickster, though, he had shades of a more sincere, less malignant Roger Stone.

Q: The book comes out April 5 (the day after PC basketball’s national championship game), and you’re having a launch event at “Books on the Square” that night at 6 p.m. Tell us more about the event.

Arsenault: Yes, thrilled to be holding the book’s initial launch in Providence. Everybody is welcome. It should be a blast. I’ll be discussing Rathom, his influence, and how I researched and wrote the book. My conversation partner for the evening is journalist Mike Stanton. Mike has experience with colorful Rhode Island rogues, as the author of the definitive biography of the late Buddy Cianci.

We’ll take any questions that come up, of course, and I will be making my affirmative case that John Revelstoke Rathom is the most fascinating Rhode Islander in history.

The Globe in Rhode Island

⚓ While 62 percent of all Rhode Islanders owned a home in 2019, only 34 percent of Black Rhode Islanders did, according to a newly published report by Brown University researchers. Read more.

⚓ Just a day after Bryant University clinched its first NCAA Tournament berth since moving out of Division II, its administration announced plans to break ground on new facilities, including a landmark convocation center and arena. Read more.

⚓ House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Representative June S. Speakman on Thursday unveiled a package of 11 bills to address Rhode Island’s housing crisis. Read more.

⚓ Is Rhode Island going to end the sale of nips of alcohol? Read more.

🎂 Rhode Map readers have sent another round of Happy Birthday wishes to: Kerri Goodson (41), Eric Wagner (41), Joe Greene (70), Michaela Antunes, Peter Baptista (37), Eric Hyers, Nate Pseekos (42), Ernie Almonte, Stu Crowley (78), Tim Clarkin, Santiago Posas (32), Adam Harrington, Janice Day, and Shay Maloney.

Also in the Globe

⚓ The 2020 census missed an unexpectedly small percentage of the total U.S. population given the unprecedented challenges it faced, according to a report released Thursday, but civil rights leaders were outraged that Black, Latino, and Indigenous residents were overlooked at higher rates than a decade ago. Read more.

⚓ Kane’s Donuts president and chief executive Paul Delios filed a lawsuit against his siblings last week, alleging they’re trying to oust him from the beloved business. Read more.

⚓ What does baseball’s latest labor agreement mean for the Red Sox? Read more.

What’s on tap today

E-mail events to us at [email protected].

⚓ The Friars take on Creighton at 6:30 p.m. You can watch the game on Fox Sports 1 or listen on WPRO-AM.

⚓ The Big East Championship game is at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports 1.

My previous column

Ed Cooley overcame long odds as a kid growing up in South Providence. Now his scrappy Friars are following their coach’s lead. If you missed the column, you can read it here. And all of my columns are on our Rhode Island Commentary page.

Rhode Island Report podcast

Ed Fitzpatrick talks to Aminullah Faqiry, a front-line Afghan interpreter who worked with the US military for nearly 12 years. Listen to all of our podcasts here.

Thanks for reading. Send comments and suggestions to [email protected], or follow me on Twitter @DanMcGowan . I’ll be back tonight after the Providence-Creighton game.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.

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