5 Media Hoaxes That Make ‘The War of the Worlds’ Look Like A Traffic Report
First of all, before we get into it, can I just say that writing this article has made me appreciate just what an incredible word “hoax” is. Linguistically, an absolute home run on all accounts. It’s fun to say, it’s fun to write. It’s four letters, arguably the absolute most pleasing number of letters a word can have. The way it’s spelled somehow makes perfect readable sense but also looks patently insane. Try barking it out loud. It feels powerful, like some sort of spell or a command that you’d use to make an incredibly large dog sit.
Anyways, what we’re here to discuss is media hoaxes, a subject that I can tell you firsthand is much harder to effectively research in the year 2023. You have to sift through 20 vaguely anti-Semitic op-eds before you get even one verifiable fact. We’re talking about stories reported with a straight face that turned out to be totally and completely falsified. The most famous of these is probably The War of the Worlds broadcast, even though it was never actually a news broadcast, just an adaptation of the story that sounded like one. Of course, people tuning in halfway through didn’t necessarily know that, and suddenly, everyone thought aliens were afoot. A bit of confusion that had happened before, and would happen again.
Here are five other media hoaxes that fooled a nation…
The Great Moon Hoax
No, hopeful conspiracy fans, we’re not re-litigating whether Neil Armstrong stepped on a soundstage. Maybe you’re just trying to keep some wonder alive in your life, but you should know that “the moon landing was faked” will never be anything other than a conversational “check please.” We’re talking about what’s called “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” That was the year when Adam Locke at the New York newspaper The Sun published a series of what he claimed were satirical pieces about the discovery of life on the moon (doubt it) by someone piloting a balloon into space (double-dog doubt it).
The intent seemed to be making fun of how outlandish it would be to expect life on the moon, a popular subject of discussion at the time, but the important thing that Locke forgot is that a solid percentage of people are stone-cold idiots. Though, people today still pass around Onion articles as if they’re real, so maybe we shouldn't look too far down our nose here. He invented and described not just one Moon-creature, but a veritable zooful, including tiny bison, cranes and bat-men (not the dead parents kind). It wasn’t just the paste-eaters that were fooled, either. The straight-up New York Times took the position of calling his discoveries “probable.” Bit of a black eye for the Gray Lady.
Diaries are private affairs, meant only to be read by the writer themselves. For 99.9 percent of them, that’s perfectly fine, since they’re filled with mostly therapeutic self-pity over imagined slights. If you’re somebody of particular historical importance and a truly questionable worldview, like, say, Adolf Hitler? Well, suddenly knowing what was going through your mind day-to-day becomes an object of serious curiosity. So, when the German magazine Stern published the previously unknown diaries of the Fuhrer, it was world news, quick. If I were a German magazine, I’d try not to remind people about the guy when possible, but write what you know, I guess.
The global interest in the personal scribblings of hell’s guest of honor lasted two weeks. What happened then? Well, you might have thought to yourself that Hitler didn’t seem like a big “self-reflection” guy, and you were right. The diaries were exposed as a hugely profitable, and not particularly well-done forgery by a career con man. Despite almost immediate skepticism from Hitler-versed historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper, the diaries were reported as real by multiple publications including The Sunday Times, edited by, oh, Rupert Murdoch. Well, that makes a little more sense.
The Invention of the Bathtub
Speaking of anti-Semitism, we’ll next move to a published prank by author and Nazi supporter H.L. Mencken. His fanciful tale at least has the benefit of being something that could slip by a little more understandably. When you’re talking about the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or the architect of a genocide, not doing a little background research is unforgivable. But lying about the history of the bathtub? Well, why would someone do that in the first place?
Mostly, because he was bored. Secondarily, because they wanted to show how cannibalistic the news media was when it came to popular stories, facts be damned. An accusation that we are intimately familiar with in the internet age. So when Mencken invented and published an old-timey listicle full of entirely false facts about the invention of the bathtub, it was what modern editors would call “aggregated” by papers across the country. A solid prank by, and again, I want to reiterate this, a horrible guy.
Monck Mason’s Balloon Journey
Long before the Balloon Boy floated into the hearts and cable boxes of people across the nation, there was a different inflatable-based fib that grabbed the world’s attention. It was the fantastical journey of one Monck Mason across the Atlantic Ocean in a flying balloon. A tale right out of a storybook, and just as full of shit. If you’re wondering why everybody was continually fooled by fake balloon travel, that’s not a coincidence.
This fake story, published in the very same Sun that had been duped by false balloonery once before, was a tribute to Locke’s previous lie. It was written as a wink and a nod and a way to gain notoriety by an eager young author named Edgar Allen Poe. It demonstrated his talent for engaging writing, and his complete lack of journalistic integrity. Luckily, he carved out a pretty solid niche in fiction. Poe isn’t even this fake news’ only connection to modern literature, either: It was apparently the inspiration for Jules Verne’s first successful piece of writing, Five Weeks in a Balloon.
The Moon Landing
Okay, I just watched videos from five different YouTube guys with the same goatee, and I changed my mind. There’s no wind on the moon, and I’m not looking further into it!
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.