The 6 Most Obvious Lies People Got Famous Telling the Media
Here in 2015, we live in the center of a tropical storm of information. We are used to wild speculation, political propaganda, and misguided pranks being reported to us as "news." It almost makes you nostalgic for the carefully gathered and source-checked journalism before the social media era.
Well, we have some bad news -- it wasn't much better back then. Here are some obvious lies the news media fell for harder than your anti-vaccine and global warming-denying friends on Facebook. Such as ...
Tania Head, Supposed Survivor Hero of 9/11
The tragedy of 9/11 continued long after the towers collapsed. Survivors suffered from countless ailments both physically and emotionally, and in the wake of the disaster, America was a bit too busy dreaming about all the terrorist ass we were going to kick to pay much attention. But then, a hero emerged: Tania Head's brave and terrible tale finally gave recognition to 9/11 survivors -- the woman went on to head the World Trade Center Survivors' Network. There was only one problem: Head was entirely full of shit.
According to Head, she was working at Merrill Lynch on the morning of September 11th when the second Boeing 767 plowed into her floor. A desperate colleague made a dying request for her to return his wedding ring to his wife. Head agreed, being the heroine that she was. She descended the stairs with the man's ring, and she passed out. She claims she was then carried to safety by Welles Crowther, whose name is hyperlinked there because he's an actual 9/11 hero who sacrificed himself in the process of saving at least a dozen lives.
So Head was miraculously saved, receiving only minor burns to her arm. Unfortunately, her beloved fiance (and in some tellings, husband) Dave wasn't so lucky. He died when the other tower collapsed. And with that, her story now officially had everything: tragedy, action, romance, near-misses, a hero, villains ... if she'd gained some powers in the process, you'd have a pretty solid superhero origin story there. It's no wonder that her tale galvanized the public to the plight of 9/11 survivors, and was hailed in the NY Daily News, The Journal News, Time, and elsewhere.
So we've already told you the story was fake, but the next question is, how fake? Was she in the building, but just didn't have as close a call as she claimed? Was the wedding ring thing fabricated? Well, a quick phone call, the kind of thing one does when fact-checking, would have revealed she didn't even work at Merrill Lynch. It also would have revealed she wasn't even in New York that day.
Hell, she wasn't even in the country.
Oh, and when someone finally asked, "Dave's" surviving family said they had never heard of her.
Her story had more holes in it than the jungle in Predator, and it's not like she invented concocting fake 9/11 stories to get attention. Still, when a victim crawls from the rubble of our country's worst disaster with a dead fiance, it's a very risky move calling bullshit. So, nobody did.
So how long did it take anyone to look into her story? Oh, only about six years. Before that, she literally became the president of the aforementioned World Trade Center Survivors' Network, which we're sure does great work but, you know, it has certain membership requirements. The New York Times finally started looking into it in 2007 and found out that she was just one of those serial liars -- she also didn't have the degree from Harvard she had claimed, and had not in fact defeated Jean-Claude Van Damme in an underground fighting tournament in 1996 (the fight was a draw).
Robert Capa, a War Photographer With Oddly Fake-Looking Photos
There is a famous and gruesome photo from the Spanish Civil War taken just as a man was being shot in the head (titled "Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936). You may have seen it:
The photo was taken by a 22-year-old Robert Capa and first printed in a photo essay in the French magazine Vu. It later appeared in thousands of other places, including Life, where it was printed next to a hair oil ad with some accidental but solid wordplay.
For four decades, it was regarded as the greatest war photograph ever taken. Then in 1975, allegations arose that it was fake. First, if you look at the original photo essay, there is another picture of a man, alone in the same field, dying on the exact same spot. And yet ... that's not the same guy, is it?
That's pretty weird, right? Well, like all controversies, there is some debate. Some say it's staged. Others say that's impossible because the man's left hand isn't reaching out to break his fall. It's enough to make you not trust men hanging out and taking pictures of gunshot deaths.
Capa biographer and defender, Richard Whelan, studied both pictures and said, "careful examination, however, leaves no doubt that they show two different men who fell on almost precisely the same spot." But ... doesn't that sort of prove it's a fake? The position of the clouds is unchanged, and even if photographers lie, clouds don't. The fact that they're in the same spot means the photos were taken only moments and feet from each other. So ... wouldn't there be a dead body on the ground in one of those pictures? Isn't it a little too perfect that he happened to capture the exact moment of impact, capturing the men in mid-fall both times?
And then there's this: Researchers have discovered the photo was taken 30 miles away from Cerra Muriano. That means Robert was an hour's drive away from the war, just taking pictures of guys slipping. Which may not be as historically significant, but seems pretty fun.
The Bizarre Howard Hughes Hoax That Never Ends
Howard Hughes was a well-known eccentric, which is how you pronounce "severe dementia" near money. He was a recluse known for keeping jars of pee, wiping everything with tissue, and watching the same movie on repeat wearing only a napkin. Today, that's a successful webcam business. In the 1970s, it was crazy. So when a will appeared after his death that left 1/16th of his vast fortune to some guy named Melvin Dummar simply for giving him a ride once, it seemed kind of reasonable.
According to Dummar, he was driving through Nevada in 1967 and found Hughes lying in a bloody heap during a bathroom break. Hughes needed money and a lift to Vegas, so Dummar gave him a ride and a quarter. Less than a decade later, amazingly, Hughes' dying wish was to pay that $0.25 back with $156,000,000 -- an interest rate of roughly every fucking number.
Obviously, Hughes' estate contested the claim. A long court battle followed which Dummar lost, badly. He claimed not to have known about the will, but they found his fingerprints on it. It was filled with spelling errors, and not where a fully brained person might make them. These were the kind of spelling errors you'd make if your best idea was scribbling a fake will and hoping a billionaire's estate lawyers were as stupid as you.
The "Howard Hughes" who wrote the will spelled his own cousin's name wrong. He spelled Las Vegas wrong. He spelled "children" and "revoke" as "cildren" and "revolk." All of them were strange errors for an educated Vegas regular. However, the most damning evidence against the will came when "Howard" left the "spruce goose" to the city of Long Beach. Even if he owned that plane when the fake will was written, which he didn't, Spruce Goose was a nickname for the Hercules aircraft the real Hughes despised. It'd be like finding a will saying "I, Bill Gaits, leave all of windoze to Cleevland."
We should also be reminded that Hughes was living nude in a hotel room watching the same movie on repeat at the time he was meant to be found by Dummar, bloody and hundreds of miles from nowhere. So in a precedent-setting case for duh, the will was declared a forgery. Still, the story of Dummar's almost-riches continued. It was made into a movie in 1980 that painted Dummar not as a liar, but as a hero who got screwed. Why? Probably because it makes a better plot than "dumbass plan fails after long legal battle."
So that's the end, right? Nope!
The story picked up traction again in the mid-2000s when a man named Robert Deiro claimed Hughes actually was on the side of the road in 1967 because the two of them got drunk in a whorehouse and Hughes decided to walk home. Wait, what? This frail, reclusive germophobe touched a bunch of prostitutes, then solo-hiked across the Nevada desert? That story would be more believable if it included Bigfoot and a time amulet. Still, it was reported as non-preposterous news by The New York Times and The Salt Lake Tribune. This circumstantial and made-up story about hookers put Dummar back in the spotlight.
Common sense and evidence seem to support the case made by Hughes' estate that Dummar is a big, fat liar. So why are so many people rooting for the guy after 40 years? Well, when one side of the conflict is a team of estate lawyers, it's pretty easy to pick a side. Clinically speaking, lawyers dine on unbaptized babies in Hell, so if we have to pick between an incompetent swindler and them, it's incompetent swindler every time.
And speaking of "frauds who were believed because everyone hated the other guy" ...
Bill Burkett and the Badly Faked Bush Documents
Right before the 2004 presidential election, CBS and USA Today received documents from Bill Burkett, a former lieutenant colonel in the Texas Air National Guard. They were military memos showing that when George W. Bush was in the National Guard, he failed to perform his duty and used his father's influence to improve his record. Armed with this incriminating evidence, "60 Minutes" ran a story on it.
To get a sense of how little fact-checking it'd have taken to debunk the documents, the Internet figured out they were fake pretty much during the broadcast. And the source wasn't George W. Bush's National Guard brothers defending his honor -- it was font nerds on message boards defending the natural laws of time and space.
You see, the documents allegedly typed in 1972 and 1973 used proportional fonts, something that you see every day now that a typewriter at the time might have called "sorcery." Another way to put it is that the documents suspiciously lined up perfectly with the default settings of Microsoft Word 30 years into the future.
Even if CBS' newsroom was staffed entirely by people too young to know what typewritten documents look like, they still had plenty of reasons to at least raise an eyebrow. Burkett wasn't exactly some impartial source who popped out of the woodwork -- the guy went around posting anti-Bush messages on Internet forums. He handed them the documents two months before the election. No matter how badly you want to believe in the inherent goodness and honesty of your fellow man, maybe run that shit by somebody who would know how to spot a forgery. And in fact, the network kept stubbornly insisting they were real. It took CBS a week to figure out they made a mistake, which was far longer than it took seemingly every other person in the world.
So you might be wondering, what did Burkett have to say for himself after being caught in such a stupid, obvious lie?
As you probably guessed, he made up some more stupid, obvious lies. He claimed to be some kind of innocent middleman -- mysterious people were just handing him documents to hand to other people. The names of those people changed several times, and apparently it was only a weird coincidence that the forged documents discredited a man Burkett publicly hated. The point is, Burkett is such a terrible liar his children never got a chance to believe in Santa.
After his hilariously flimsy hoax was exposed, Burkett fought back against the allegations by threatening to sue. Incredibly, his lawyer, David Van Os, suggested it didn't matter if the documents were fake since, for all we know, they might say things that are actually true. It's very similar to telling the police "My wife was probably going to fall down the stairs anyway" or "How can you be sure that drifter wouldn't have broken into my basement, undressed, and chained himself to that radiator?"
Laurel Rose Willson, Breeder for Satan
If you read around, you know there are any number of threats to our way of life in America: North Korea, anti-Christmas movements, female video game players ... but the paranoia we generate today is nothing compared to the paranoia we produced in the 1980s. Back then we had nuclear weapons. We had AIDS. You kids today with your possible measles outbreaks. In our day, we had fucking satanic cells killing our babies. We wrote children's books about it.
Yes, in the late '80s there was an actual fear of being ritualistically abused by satanists, and a lot of it can be attributed to one woman: Laurel Rose Willson.
She came forward with a story of a satanic cult that killed four babies until she agreed to join them. Once she was a part of it, she was used to breed children for harvest. Two of her babies were killed in snuff films, she said, and another was sacrificed to Satan. That's sad not only for the babies, but for the cultist's accountant -- they didn't even get a return-on-investment for the initial four babies they put into that breeder human.
Willson wrote three books (as Lauren Stratford) about her totally believable experiences and pitched them on shows like Oprah and Geraldo. However, people started doing the math on her experiences and the gestation period of humans, and it didn't quite add up. Plus, at a certain point you have to ask yourself, "What if there aren't necromancers eating babies in real life? I mean, wouldn't they have killed us all with bats and snakes by now?"
What kind of person makes up stories about killing her own children to get attention? Well, it turns out it's the same kind of person who makes up stories about being a Holocaust survivor to get attention, which is what she did next. She adopted the identity of Laura Grabowski, a Polish Jew experimented on by mad scientists in a concentration camp who writes poems about it. She collected donations from people who believed her story until Cornerstone magazine blew the lid off the scam in 1999. Hey, maybe she was just trying to prove the Satan stuff is real, by making sure she'd get to meet him in person later on.
Douglas A. McDonnell is a regular participant in our weekly Photoplasty contests and would like to give a shout out to his dad, whom he maintains is easily one of, if not the best paternal unit on the planet today.
For more liars we all believed, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction and The 6 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Nonfiction.
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