6 Times The News Went Totally Overboard Chasing A Story
It might sound impossible to anyone living in the year 2017, but once upon a time, there was a thing called a "slow news day." Before we had the technology to beam every world leader's most deranged thoughts directly into our phones, it sometimes seemed like there was nothing newsworthy going on in the world. So enterprising journalists took matters into their own hands and made newsworthy shit happen, whatever the cost ...
An Australian TV Crew Found A Lost Hiker, Delayed Getting Him Treatment So They Could Film An Interview
In 1999, American tourist Robert Bogucki decided to trek across Australia's Great Sandy Desert in search of spiritual enlightenment, which is a bit harder to find in, like, a nice suite at the Marriott. Since the Great Sandy Desert is exactly what it sounds like, Australian police subsequently got the chance to seek some spiritual enlightenment of their own while mounting a massive search-and-rescue operation for Bogucki's lost ass.
The search effort became a media sensation in Australia -- and that may have saved Bogucki's life. After 43 hellish days, long after the authorities had given up and assumed he was eaten by scorpions or something, Bogucki was spotted by a helicopter carrying a Channel 9 camera crew to the search camp. The crew landed near the starving, sunburned hiker ... and immediately started rolling.
Instead of contacting the police and rushing Bogucki to a hospital, Channel 9 kept him in the desert to film an interview and some footage of him stumbling around and drinking muddy water. Leaked footage of the interview shows that it went on for at least 17 and a half minutes before he got a drink of clean water (shit, we get dry lips just saying a full sentence). Unsurprisingly, Bogucki wanted to get the hell out of there as fast as possible, but the crew insisted on dicking around in the desert for a while.
When they did go, they ignored a medical camp five minutes away and flew an hour to the town of Broome, where Channel 9's reporter and transmitting equipment happened to be located. The network defended themselves by saying it was Bogucki's idea, apparently forgetting that they had recorded the whole thing. Judge for yourself:
The cameraman can clearly be heard interrupting the pilot when he says they can fly to the nearby base, saying, "straight back to Broome would be good." On the way there, they finally offered Bogucki a banana ... which his unprepared body promptly rejected, causing him to vomit. Naturally, the crew touched down again, hustled him out of the helicopter, and filmed him retching and writhing on the ground. This footage was used in their report as the moment they supposedly found him. At this point, we're honestly surprised that they didn't have him sign a reality TV contract and fly him straight to the set of Australian Big Brother.
CBS Tried To Fund An Invasion Of Haiti
In 1966, CBS News stumbled upon a secret plan to overthrow the government of Haiti, as one does. The invasion was being planned by a group of Haitian and Cuban exiles led by Rolando "El Tigre" Masferrer, a man with the mind of a skink and the sexual charisma of two much uglier skinks. Masferrer had led an anti-Castro paramilitary group during the Cuban Revolution before fleeing to Miami, where he cooked up his master plan with ex-OSS mercenary Mitchell "The Wizard of Whispering Death" WerBell. (Yes, every single person involved in this had a Metal Gear Solid-like nickname.) Since U.S. support for an invasion of Cuba had dried up after that whole Bay of Pigs shitshow, they needed a new base. So they decided they'd invade Haiti, overthrow bloodsoaked voodoo tyrant Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and use the country as the launching point for a subsequent invasion of Cuba.
Of course, invading countries costs money ... and that's where CBS came in.
Realizing that one bloody war in the Caribbean would give them higher ratings than zero bloody wars in the Caribbean, CBS producers agreed to supply funding for the invasion in exchange for exclusive broadcast rights. In return for investing up to $200,000, CBS got to film guns being smuggled through Florida and a training exercise which ended suddenly when a rifle exploded and took a mercenary's eye out. They also recorded a sit-down with Masferrer, who insisted on wearing pantyhose on his head like a financially challenged Batman villain.
CBS eventually pulled out of the deal after delays to the invasion made them suspect they were getting ripped off. (Nobody pays just to see guns smuggled through Florida, a thing hundreds of elderly citizens do by accident every day.) The key plotters were later arrested and CBS was censured by Congress. In a final twist, the mercenary whose rifle exploded sued the network, claiming that he was employed by CBS when he suffered the injuries and was therefore entitled to workers' compensation. The mercenary got $15,000 in an out-of-court settlement, which ruined his chances of CBS pushing him for any Emmys.
NBC And CBS Built Rival Tunnels Under The Berlin Wall
After the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, there was a boom in news stories about desperate East Berliners making daring journeys to the West (like the guy who drove a freaking train through it). At the time, CBS was the big name in news, while NBC had only recently stopped making Lorne Greene shout the headlines from horseback while filming Bonanza. NBC was keen to beat their rivals by getting real footage of a badass escape. None of that "dramatic recreation" crap.
The problem was that people planning to defect across patrolled borders rarely tell the media how they're gonna do it beforehand. So NBC came up with a creative solution: building their damn own tunnel under the Wall and filming people using it.
Okay, technically some German engineering students built the tunnel (reporters being better at digging up metaphorical dirt). NBC simply agreed to fund the whole thing in exchange for the right to film any resulting escapes. The project cost about $150,000 in today's money and was a massive undertaking, with over 40 tunnelers working in shifts for six months. They had to install pumps to keep the workers from running out of oxygen, while the intended breakthrough point had to be changed at the last minute due to suspicions that some of the diggers were East German spies. These probably weren't problems NBC had learned to deal with on the set of I Dream Of Jeannie.
The tunnel opened in September 1962, whereupon NBC cameramen filmed 21 adults and five babies traveling Bugs-Bunny-style to the West.
In a rather awkward turn of events, it turned out that CBS News had a contract with a rival group of tunnelers, meaning that there was a bit of an underground turf war going on for a while there. The U.S. government discovered the CBS tunnel and ordered them to stop to avoid inflaming tensions in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But by the time they found out about the NBC tunnel, the network was practically editing the documentary already. In the end, all that effort was worth it, for NBC had accomplished something truly transcendental: beating I Love Lucy in the ratings.
The Real-Life Citizen Kane Staged A Real-Life Prison Break
In 1897, maniacal newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was locked in a bitter circulation war with crazed media magnate Joseph Pulitzer. Both men had been relentlessly covering Spain's cruel occupation of Cuba, so Hearst wanted something to give his cheap sensationalism a little more pizzazz. And then he found it: boobs.
Hearst heard about Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros, a woman who had tied a notorious local governor to a chair while foiling an alleged rape and was subsequently arrested for kidnapping. Cosio was a beautiful young woman cruelly thrown into prison for supposedly defending herself, and Hearst wanted her on the front page at any cost, even he had to break her out of prison.
So he did that.
It started normally enough, with Hearst's New York Journal running articles declaring the case a travesty of justice and fudging the details to make Cosio into the most unjustly persecuted heroine since Joan of Arc was catapulted into that volcano. About 15,000 readers signed a petition calling for her immediate release, with Hearst personally requesting the signatures of prominent women like President McKinley's mother and ... uh, Jefferson Davis' widow? Really? The 1890s were a bleak time for prominent women, but surely Hearst could have done a little better than someone's mom and the Slave Queen of Old Virginia.
Anyway, despite Hearst's efforts, Spain insisted that Cosio should be put on trial. This was a disaster for Hearst, who risked losing readers if his big campaign just kind of petered out. And so, in the second most unreasonable journalistic request ever after "get me pictures of Spider-Man," Hearst ordered a reporter to break Cosio out of prison.
After deciding against dynamiting a fucking hole in the wall, Journal reporter Karl Decker crawled across a rickety ladder onto the roof of the jail and used a wrench to break through the bars on the window. Cosio crawled out through the window and was hustled onto a boat while disguised as a cigar-toting man. The boat set sail after customs officers were distracted with a timely round of free drinks. (How is "Don't take free drinks from the strange guy in the fake beard" not lesson one of being a customs officer?) Cosio arrived in New York to a crowd of 75,000, and the paper sold so many copies that people are probably still wrapping fish with them.
1920s Journalists Kidnapped A Murder Suspect And Faked A Ghost Appearance By The Victim
In 1922, Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor was shot dead under circumstances so confusing that there are still people trying to figure out what the fuck happened. This triggered a media frenzy, to the point where over 300 people turned themselves in and confessed to the murder just to feel famous. A slightly more realistic candidate was Taylor's valet, a man named Henry Peavey. He was soon cleared, but journalists at The Los Angeles Examiner and New York Daily News thought he was hiding something -- his being black and openly gay surely had nothing to do with that -- and decided to find out exactly what using good old-fashioned journalism. And kidnapping. Mostly kidnapping.
Armed with fake police uniforms and phony warrants, two reporters showed up at Peavey's place and told him he was under arrest. The non-cops took Peavey to The Examiner's office in handcuffs and interrogated him for the next 12 hours straight without sleep. They also planned to hold him without food, but eventually gave up and sent out for a meal because they already had their first scoop: It turns out humans need nourishment to live.
Unfortunately, Peavey was a tougher nut to crack than the dumbass journalists had assumed. They even offered him a $1,000 "reward" for naming a killer (preferably a famous one), but that didn't work. That's when the kidnappers decided that they were going to have to deploy that wonderful combination of creativity, racism, and sheer bombastic idiocy that made Hollywood great. Bundling Peavey into a car, they drove him to a cemetery, where a reporter jumped out from behind a gravestone in a white sheet and shouted: "I am the ghost of William Taylor. You murdered me. Confess!"
Peavey roared with laughter, told the reporters to get fucked, and legged it out of there. Puzzled that their brilliant plan had failed to work, the reporters involved later thought they had identified the problem: They got the murdered guy's accent wrong. It seems to have never crossed their minds that Peavey, an unashamedly homosexual black man living openly in the freaking 1920s, was probably far too tough to be scared by some asshole wearing a blanket.
A Newspaper Told A Murder Victim's Mother That Her Daughter Had Won A Beauty Contest, Then Revealed She Was Actually Dead
The Black Dahlia murder is one of the biggest crime stories in California history, and naturally, the jam-brained insane-o-nauts at The Los Angeles Examiner were all over it. In fact, an Examiner reporter was the first person to reach the crime scene, and closed the corpse's eyes before the police arrived (1947 took a very lax approach to "tampering with a crime scene").
Not wanting to lose their head start, The Examiner cut a deal to let the cops use their wire photo system to send the victim's fingerprints to be identified by the FBI. In return, the LAPD agreed that The Examiner would have the right to announce her name before anyone else. That was already pretty shady, but the LAPD clearly didn't realize the level of sheer blank-eyed evil they were dealing with here.
As soon as the victim was identified as Elizabeth Short, the reporters went to work and tracked down her mother, Phoebe. But The Examiner had a problem. They were desperate to get the first interview with Phoebe Short, but were worried she wouldn't be in the mood to talk much if they told her about her daughter's brutal murder. So instead, they called up and said that they were doing a story on her daughter because she had won a beauty contest. Mrs. Short was delighted and chatted happily about her beautiful daughter's childhood and her love of films. Only at the end of the call did the reporter mention that, oh yeah, she was dead. Welp, bye!
Jim Murray, later to become a legendary sportswriter, remembered watching in horror as one-eyed city editor Jim Richardson forced the reporter involved to make the call, which suggests that even the kidnap-happy iguanas at The Examiner realized they might be going too far this time. Still, they clearly didn't feel that bad, since they later offered to pay for Phoebe Short to travel to Los Angeles to identity the body ... and tried to keep her away from the cops and other reporters to protect their exclusive source of information. It almost makes you appreciate present-day journalists for merely pulling whole stories out of their butts. At least there's no grieving moms then.
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