Play Video

A Brief History of Media Hoaxes

“Fake News” Isn’t Exactly a New Phenomenon

August 2023

Script

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:

  1. In 1835, the New York Sun convinced readers that there were exotic species of life on the Moon.
  2. In 1941, a New York stockbroker tricked the New York Times into printing football scores from a fake college.
  3. The first hoax of the internet era involved a fake AP story claiming Microsoft was trying to buy the Catholic Church.

Source(s)

  1.  "The Great Moon Hoax Was Simply a Sign of Its Time" (Sarah Zielinksi) — Smithsonian Magazine
  2.  "The Greatest Hoax in Sports Reporting History (The Times Fell for It, Too)" (Bill Christine) — New York Times
  3. "And the Spoof Begat a News Release, and Another" (Peter H. Lewis) — New York Times
  4. "‘Balloon Boy’ Parents Pardoned by Colorado Governor for 2009 Hoax" (Reese Oxner) — National Public Radio (NPR)

Shownotes

SOUND: "Level Another Day" (Playhouse) 

FOOTAGE: Benjamin Henry Day (Library of Congress) / Archive Photos (Getty) // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Delve Deeper

Bonus Content

More Videos

June 2024

Does Improving the Planet Require Ending Economic Growth?

A popular new theory posits that we need to slow down the economy in the name of social justice.
Watch Now...

June 2024

Will China Pass America in Nuclear Energy Production?

Currently, the United States is the uncontested leader in producing nuclear power. That’s about to change.
Watch Now...