Okay, headlines can lie, but can you better determine the truth in a photo or the voice of a trusted colleague? With the advent of faster and easier halftone reproduction in the 1920s came the photo-driven tabloid newspapers like the New York Illustrated Daily News. In 1924 the most tabloidy of all tabloids arrived, the New York Evening Graphic (nicknamed the Porno-graphic), which launched the gossip careers of Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell and the vaunted Composograph photo. The Composograph was actually a technique that combined real and staged pictures to depict events where no cameras had ventured. The Graphic’s editors had a blast with the pop star Rudolph Valentino, documenting the singer’s unsuccessful surgery, funeral, and his meeting in heaven with the departed Enrico Caruso—the headline: “Rudy Meets Caruso! Tenor’s Spirit Speaks!&rdquo
Telephones meant faster, more accurate newsgathering at a time when speed was prized and “extra” editions meant extra profits. The telephone necessitated the creation of two-man urban reporting teams—leg men and rewrite men—which irritated H.L. Mencken to no end. Journalism, he wrote in 1927,
is in a low state, mainly due to the decay of the old-time reporter, the heart and soul of the American newspapers of the last generation. The current rush to get upon the streets with hot news, even at the cost of printing only half of it, has pretty well destroyed all his old qualities. He no longer writes what he has seen and heard; he telephones it to a remote and impersonal rewrite man….But it must be manifest that, hanging on his telephone, maybe miles away from the event he is describing, he is completely unable to get into his description any of the vividness of a thing actually seen. He does the best he can, but that best is to the reporting of a fairer era as a mummy is to a man.
Of course Mencken’s selective memory harks back to the glory days of yellow journalism, when the worst (or best) fakery in history took place, but never mind that. He seems to have completely forgotten his own role ten years earlier in a great classic newspaper hoax, “A Neglected Anniversary,” a fake history of the bathtub, which ran in the New York Evening Mail on December 28, 1917.
“Not a plumber fired a salute or hung out a flag,” Mencken lamented. “Not a governor proclaimed a day of prayer. Not a newspaper called attention to the day,” the purported seventy-fifth birthday of the bathtub. Mencken’s piece provided a vivid and full history of the introduction of the tub to American life. It singled out for praise Millard Fillmore for his role in bringing one of the first tubs to the White House, giving it “recognition and respectability in the United States.”
“A Neglected Anniversary” was so finely rendered that it literally sprang back to life—like a reanimated mummy—and found its way into print dozens of times, criticized, analyzed, and repeated as a real chapter in American history.
Hoaxes like this seem so Colbert now, like mutant cousins to his notion of “truthiness.” But hoaxers are historically not comedians; they are, like Mencken, journalists who write entertaining stuff that sounds vaguely true, even though it’s not, for editors who are usually in on the joke. The hoaxing instinct infected newsrooms throughout the early days of modern newspapers to a degree that most of us find puzzling today. Newspapers contained hundreds, if not thousands of hoaxes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of them undocumented fakes in obscure Western weeklies. The subjects were oddball pets and wild weather, giants, mermaids, men on the moon, petrified people (quite a few of those), and (my favorite) the Swiss Navy. As a novice editor at the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise, a young Mark Twain put his talent to the test with a hoax of hoaxes. “I chose to kill the petrification mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire,” he wrote. He called it “A Petrified Man.&rdquo