Monday, October 29, 2018

5 from the Fake News Hall of Fame

Sure, fake news is all the rage in the internet age, but we modern folk didn’t exactly invent phony news stories. Hoaxes, biased reports, and sloppy journalism have plagued the media since the invention of the printing press. They say a lie can travel around the world before the truth can even put on its pants, but often the lie lives on long after the truth has been revealed. Consider these five stories that live on in legend today as some of the most famous fake news events in history.

Bat People on the Moon

In 1835, struggling publisher Benjamin Day attempted to compete with New York’s many daily newspapers. Day published The Sun, a one –cent paper which attracted a readership of the city’s working class. Day presumed that this audience, unsophisticated in the ways of established journalism, would be receptive to news stories that were exciting, if not exactly true.

Day hired Richard Adams Locke, a veteran newspaperman who knew how to cook up drama in his stories. Noticing a trend in speculation about the moon and its environment, Locke began a series on “great astronomical discoveries,” supposedly made with a new high-powered telescope. The “reports” described a moon surface filed with seas and forests, with huge pink and purple crystals rising from the sand. There were moon bison, moon pelicans, moon zebras, moon beavers, and most astounding, a race of flying bat people. The bat folk, according to Locke, were four-feet high, flew with wings like bats, engaged in conversation, and even had picnics.

Throughout the week the moon stories appeared, The Sun vastly outsold any other New York paper. Rightly irritated, reporters at competing papers worked to reveal the hoax. (Locke had claimed his information came from a scientific journal that no longer existed – always cite verifiable sources!) Locke was shamed into admitting his ruse, suggesting it had all been a good-natured satire.

You can imagine everyone’s disappointment decades later when the Apollo mission revealed no moon beavers.

Poe’s Hot Air

Benjamin Day was eager to strike circulation gold again in 1844, when The Sun published another hoax, crafted by a little-known short story writer named Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, who would go on to infamy as literature’s master of the macabre, was then a reliable junk news generator. There are at least six published accounts credited to Poe that turned out to be fake news.

Capitalizing on the popularity of hot air balloon adventures, Poe published his tale under the headline “Atlantic Crossed in Three Days, Signal Triumph of Mr. Monck Mason’s Flying Machine!” Of course there was no balloonist named Monck Mason, nor a fancy flying machine developed by the ridiculously-named Professor Rub-a-dub, but that didn’t stop readers from devouring Poe’s story, full of fake technical details about the fake journey.

Ironically, Poe had been privately annoyed that Richard Locke’s earlier moonmen hoax had borrowed heavily from Poe’s short story, “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfall,” and perhaps hoped to best Locke in the newspaper hoax game. Alas, Poe’s story didn’t have the electricity of the moon hoax, and few were surprised when other newspapers failed to find evidence of the three-day balloon trip.

Mark Twain’s Career Rises from the Dead

Celebrated American author Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) was in hiding. Suffering from bad financial investments and disillusioned with public life, he was living in London in 1897, trying to preserve his privacy. One of the few contacts he had there was his cousin, James Ross Clemens, also living in London, who had fallen seriously ill soon after their first meeting.

When the papers reported James’ illness, the address was mistaken for that of his famous cousin, and rumors began to spread that the literary legend was either dead or soon would be. A young reporter from the New York Journal, Frank Marshall White, was dispatched to Twain’s home with the instructions, “If Mark Twain dying in poverty, send 500 words. If Mark Twain has died in poverty, send 1000 words.”

White visited Twain’s home to find him alive and well. The author assured the young man “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” White reported this response verbatim, which soon became one of the most repeated and best-known quotes from the highly quotable writer. The public was so delighted with the story that Twain’s popularity took a turn for the better, and soon new works were being commissioned from the long silent Twain.

This was good news for Twain, because what had really annoyed him wasn’t the report of his death but rumors of his poverty!

War of the Welles
Orson Welles, the “young genius” of radio, needed help for his flagging Mercury Theater show. The program, which adapted classic novels as radio dramas, had no sponsor and would soon be cancelled without one. Welles devised a gimmick for his Halloween broadcast of 1938: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, presented in the style of an actual news program.

Welles and his cast created what sounded like real news reports of invading Martians destroying whole cities with unstoppable death rays. Though announcements were made that the show was pure fiction, Welles craftily kept the warnings in the beginning of the show, waiting for the moment when listeners would change stations and discover his Martian invasion mid-attack.

The broadcast created panic across the country. Police stations were inundated with calls. Newspaper reporters rushed to cover the story. Doctors, soldiers, and armed civilians reported for duty to fight the alien hordes. Bridges and highways were jammed with cars as citizens tried to flee.

The next day Orson Welles gave his greatest performance as “innocent, apologetic guy” at a press conference, claiming he and his company had no idea their cute little radio show had caused such a stir. The performance was a hit. The Mercury Theater got a sponsor, and Welles got a Hollywood contract.

Candy Con
We all know the biggest danger on Halloween isn’t ghosts or witches or having to listen to the “Monster Mash,” but poisoned Halloween candy, right? After all, local police and hospitals routinely offer to examine or even x-ray children’s’ Halloween stash to search for needles, blades, or other foreign substances. That proves it, right?

Fake news wins again! In this case, it isn’t just one junk news story about deadly candy, but dozens and dozens of questionable reports, every year for many decades. Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, conducted extensive research of poisoned candy stories in 2003. He found that, in reports going back to 1958, there was only one verifiable newspaper story about a child being poisoned with Halloween candy (by his own father). Every other story of kids getting questionable candy turned out to be a false report.

So trick or treat with confidence! The candy is fine! (Except the Almond Joy. No one should eat that stuff!)

Think you can spot fake news from junk? Then click here to try our SCC Library Fake News Quiz!

Works Cited
Powers, Ron. Mark Twain, a Life. Free Press, 2005, pp. 584-85.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe, a Critical Biography. Cooper Square, 1941, pp. 410.

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