The Best Fake News Story Ever

Think fake news is a serious issue? You’re right. Think it’s a recent invention? Not quite.

Fake news has been around as long as news itself. And nothing proves that better than the story of the New York Sun, a “penny paper” that helped invent modern journalism–and establish Santa’s bona fides–in part by publishing some pretty tall tales.

The Sun‘s Rise, and The Great Moon Hoax

Long before the internet age, there were penny papers–cheap, mass-produced dailies that churned out sensational news stories and survived, in part, on ever-expanding advertisements (not unlike, say, Facebook or Twitter). Among the pioneers of such popular publications was a young New York printer named Benjamin Day, who founded the New York Sun in 1833.

Newspapers had been around America since colonial times, and in Europe even longer, but before the 1830s they were mainly small circulation affairs, read by a few thousand people at most. Day capitalized on technological advances–including steam presses that could crank out thousands of copies per hour–to produce an inexpensive paper targeted to an untapped market: the working class.

Mass circulation was key to keeping a penny paper afloat (it actually cost a penny, as opposed to the six cents charged by contemporary papers), and Day and his colleagues quickly learned that sensational stories sell. In September 1835, the Sun‘s daily circulation reached nearly 20,000–making it the world’s largest newspaper at the time–thanks largely to a series of particularly sensational stories about the discovery of life on the moon.

The “Great Moon Hoax” began on August 25, 1835, with a Sun headline that read “GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES LATELY MADE BY SIR JOHN HERSCHEL.” Essentially, the Sun claimed to have discovered a story of cosmic importance in an obscure Scottish science journal. For six days, the paper filled its front pages with marvelous accounts of vast lunar forests, purple quartz pyramids, beautiful blue unicorns, hut-dwelling bipedal beavers, and even a species of winged humans dubbed Vespertilio homo (“bat man”).

Competitors rushed to copy the Sun‘s story, but they weren’t so much scooped as duped. When the smoke cleared, the story turned out to be the work not of Sir John Herschel (an actual British astronomer of the time, who knew nothing about it), but of Richard Adams Locke, a reporter who worked for the Sun. Or so most historians have inferred. Locke never publicly admitted to writing the story, and the Sun never officially retracted it. It did, however, retain its increased readership.

Balloon Floats by the Sun

Nine years after the Great Moon Hoax, the Sun still hadn’t learned its journalistic lesson (or, perhaps, it had learned its circulation lesson all too well). On April 13, 1844, the paper published a broadside extra topped by a screaming headline:

ASTOUNDING NEWS!
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK!
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
FLYING MACHINE!!!

The 5,000-word story that followed described a seemingly astounding aeronautical adventure in minute detail, recounting how Mason–a renowned balloonist of the time–had set off with seven friends to float from Wales to France, only to wind up in South Carolina three days later, thanks to a mechanical failure and a prevailing northeasterly wind.

Like the Great Moon Hoax, the Great Balloon Hoax capitalized on the names of famous people. Unlike the moon story, it also provided plenty of plausible details, including a careful description of the construction and functioning of the balloon; an account of the funding of the proposed expedition by well-to-do British backers; and lengthy passages from a strikingly well-written journal, reportedly kept by one of the crew throughout the flight.

In truth, the author of the journal (and the story) was no aeronaut. He was Edgar Allan Poe, who evidently put one over on the Sun to pick up a few bucks–and to prove a point. Poe had recently returned to New York with a sick wife and very little money. An experienced newspaperman (and hoaxer), Poe knew the Sun would be anxious to scoop its competitors. Prior to the age of the telegraph, papers in New York had to wait on the mail for confirmation of stories from faraway lands like South Carolina. Poe exploited that time lag, passing his balloon story off as late-breaking news and selling it to the headline-hungry Sun, reportedly for $50.

By his own account, Poe stood in front of the Sun building the day the story hit and found it “amusing . . . to hear the comments of those who had read the Extra.” Two days later, having received no confirmation in the mail, the Sun retracted the story, which was later republished in a collection of Poe’s short fiction.

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

Over the years, the Sun became increasingly respectable. So much so that, in 1897, an 8-year-old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon entrusted the paper with her most pressing question. Virginia’s father had told her that “if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” So she wrote the editors to ask whether there really was a Santa Claus.

The Sun‘s reply is one of the most famous columns in newspaper history. Written by Francis Pharcellus Church, a purportedly no-nonsense editor who had been a journalist since the Civil War, the column appeals to an ideal of truth well beyond the workaday world of a newspaper. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Church writes. And never mind the fact that he’s hard to see and hear. “The most real things in the world are those that neither chil­dren nor men can see.” Things like love and generosity and devotion. Things that don’t often make the news but are hardly fake for that.

The original Sun closed its doors in 1950. Fake news and Santa both continue to deliver, though only the latter brings good cheer.

 

 

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