Who knew? The twinning of news and entertainment that plagues us today grew not from some corporate greedhead instinct of the go-go eighties, but from our own weird history. The reasons for hoaxing were mostly mercenary: for the publisher, it was to fill column inches and bring in eyeballs. For the journalist, it was sport, a freelance fee or a ploy to keep his job. Strange to say, readers didn’t seem to mind too much.
The first major fake news event of the modern media age was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. A series of articles began appearing in the New York Sun on August 25, the late-summer brainchild of its ambitious publisher, Benjamin Day. Day wanted to move papers, like every publisher, and came up with a novel method. He began publishing a series of articles, allegedly reprinted from a nonexistent scientific journal, about Sir John Herschel, an eminent British astronomer on his way to the Cape of Good Hope to test a powerful new telescope.
What Herschel saw on the moon was… Life! Not just flora and fauna but living men—hairy, yellow-faced guys, four feet tall with enormous wings that “possessed great expansion and were similar in structure of those of the bat.” It was all too much, but New Yorkers had to see for themselves and the Sun’s circ hit a new high of 15,000. Even after its men-in-the-moon story was revealed to be a hoax, the paper retained its popularity with readers.
Edgar Allan Poe, famous but destitute in 1844, wrote another well-known hoax for the Sun. “The Atlantic Crossed in Three Days!” Poe’s story began, and it went on to describe a lighter-than-air balloon trip that wouldn’t actually take place for another sixty years. Thirty years later, at the behest of its publisher, James Gordon Bennett Jr., the New York Herald ran what’s often been called the Central Park Zoo Hoax. “Escaped Animals Roam Streets of Manhattan” the headline warned. The article maintained that twenty-seven people were dead and 200 injured in terrible scenes of mutilation. State militiamen were called in to control the situation, and sensible New Yorkers barricaded themselves in their homes.
In 1910, The Washington Post waxed nostalgic over the old men-on-the moon hoax, with a short item under a no-nonsense headline: “This Was A Famous Hoax.” In fact, that kind of warm retrospective began to appear as an occasional column or feature, illustrating a growing trend among newspapers to look back with a smile on the bad old days of great hoaxes. In the intervening years, the newspaper business had grown up into the Fourth Estate; hoaxes, for better or worse, were a part of its wild-child adolescence. By 1937, it was pretty much over, at least according to Marvin H. Creager, the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors who addressed the group’s fifteenth annual convention. “The day of the fake and the hoax…seems to have passed,” he said, “and with it the reporters and editors who delighted in perpetrating them.”
Creager, speaking to his confident colleagues at a time of rising circulation, added, “The reporter with a box of tricks is out of place in the newspaper world today.”
Times change and so do the tricksters. The newspaper, the first mass-marketed medium to enter American living rooms, was a jack of all trades, a witty parlor guest with a deck of cards. Over time, mass distribution of movies, radio, TV, and the Internet arrived to entertain Americans and eventually to eat the lunch of the great newspaper dynasties. From the days of the Yellow Press onward, publishers began to see themselves as public servants and guardians of truth; editors learned the wisdom of marking off news columns from opinion pages and imparting a higher level of veracity even to soft features. Hoaxes? The Fourth Estate has no use for hoaxers, even of the pathetic dysfunctional variety; our tribal councils cast out fabulists like Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass with great harrumphing fanfare.
Today, people expect the news media to give them relevant, accurate information. Serious journalists have for decades thought of themselves as the descendants of muckrakers, reformers, and watchdogs.