A Brief History of Media Hoaxes
“Fake News” Isn’t Exactly a New Phenomenon
The problem of “fake news” … isn’t exactly new.
In fact, America has a long history of the media hoaxing its audience — and vice versa.
In 1835, the New York Sun printed a series of articles claiming that the famed astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered life on the Moon.
Herschel allegedly found goats that looked like unicorns; bison-like creatures; and human-bat hybrids.i
Readers began catching on when it was revealed that the journal the accounts supposedly came from had shut down years prior.
In 1941, a hoax happened on the sports page of the New York Times, where readers were treated to stories about Plainfield Teachers College’s undefeated football team.
There was just one problem: The school didn’t exist.ii
The scores were phoned in by a mischievous Wall Street broker who suspected that the Times didn’t fact-check the scores.
Time magazine eventually discovered the hoax, ruining plans for Plainfield to appear in the Blackboard Bowl in Atlantic City … which also didn’t exist.
Half a century later, pranksters discovered a new way to spread hoaxes: the internet.
In 1994, a fake Associated Press story began circulating on the then-new internet, claiming that Microsoft had submitted a bid to buy the Catholic Church.iii
Faced with complaints, both Microsoft and the AP issued statements denying the story.
Not all hoaxes are entirely innocent.
In 2009, a Colorado couple claimed their six-year-old son floated away in a homemade weather balloon.iv
Media picked up the story, and the National Guard dispatched helicopters to attempt a rescue.
In reality, the incident was just a publicity stunt for the boy’s parents, who were scheduled to appear on a reality show.
The “Balloon Boy” was safe at home the whole time, hiding in the family’s attic.
The couple was charged with a felony, given jail time, and forced to pay a $36,000 fine.
It’s all fun and games until they send in the choppers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- In 1835, the New York Sun convinced readers that there were exotic species of life on the Moon.
- In 1941, a New York stockbroker tricked the New York Times into printing football scores from a fake college.
- The first hoax of the internet era involved a fake AP story claiming Microsoft was trying to buy the Catholic Church.
- "The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time" (Sarah Zielinksi) — Smithsonian Magazine
- "The Greatest Hoax in Sports Reporting History (The Times Fell for It, Too)" (Bill Christine) — New York Times
- "And the Spoof Begat a News Release, and Another" (Peter H. Lewis) — New York Times
- "‘Balloon Boy’ Parents Pardoned by Colorado Governor for 2009 Hoax" (Reese Oxner) — National Public Radio (NPR)
- Smithsonian Magazine
"The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time" (Sarah Zielinksi)
- New York Times
"The Greatest Hoax in Sports Reporting History (The Times Fell for It, Too)" (Bill Christine)
- New York Times
"And the Spoof Begat a News Release, and Another" (Peter H. Lewis)
- National Public Radio (NPR)
"‘Balloon Boy’ Parents Pardoned by Colorado Governor for 2009 Hoax" (Reese Oxner)