Journalism’s Pranks and Hoaxes

lunar animals

An artist’s rendering of life on the moon. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Journalists worldwide seem unable to contain the urge to create fake news on April Fools’ Day. Long before comedians Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and John Oliver elevated fake news to an art form, media scammers have been fooling an unsuspecting public with phony, often preposterous, news stories.

  • In 1835,  The (N.Y.) Sun’s daily sales skyrocketed when it reported that a telescope had shown the moon to be inhabited by 4–foot–tall batlike creatures “engaged in conversation.”
  • In 1844, Edgar Allen Poe made up a tale for The Sun about a balloon crossing the Atlantic Ocean in three days.
  • As a newspaper reporter, Mark Twain wrote many hoaxes, including a fake article in Nevada’s Territorial Enterprisein 1862 about a misguided coroner trying to determine the cause of death of a petrified man.
  • The authoritative BBC even stooped to flimflam, with its broadcast in 1957 about an Italian “spaghetti tree” during harvest season. The footage showed farmers dutifully picking strands of pasta off trees, prompting hundreds of viewers to ask where they could buy such trees.

These stories and more are currently featured in a display on sensationalism and media hoaxes in the Newseum’s News Corporation News History Gallery.

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