March 30, 2007
Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, 1874. (Elmira College Library)

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, 1874. (Elmira College Library)

Pranks and Hoaxes: Journalists Fooled

Editors, writers and producers worldwide seem unable to contain the urge to create fake news on April Fool’s Day. And it’s a safe prediction that the joking news on April 1 will be followed by angry letters from confused or outraged readers and viewers.

Long before comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert elevated fake news to an art form, media scammers have been fooling an unsuspecting public with phony, often preposterous, news stories.

  • In 1835, The (New York) 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 Enterprise in 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.

The best–known hoaxer today is Joey Skaggs, who has snared gullible journalists for decades. His spoofs of fish condos, a cathouse for dogs and celebrity sperm banks have fooled several prominent news organizations.

Skaggs’s longest–running hoax is his April Fool’s Day parade down Fifth Avenue, which is in its 22nd year. Watch for coverage this year, but don’t be surprised if you don’t see any floats. Each year, Skaggs’s press release manages to fool a few news organizations, but the entire parade is a hoax.

A display on sensationalism and media hoaxes can be seen in the News History gallery when the Newseum opens.

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