In an age when a "fake" news anchor like Jon Stewart earns more respect than a "real" news anchor like Brian Williams, it's only natural to pine for a time when journalism was a more honorable profession than it seems today. But this is wishful thinking--the "golden age fallacy," as media critic W. Joseph Campbell calls it. While researching my new book about Orson Welles's 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, I discovered that the line between journalism and entertainment has never been as clearly defined as we like to think. There's a long history of journalists fudging the facts (or even making some up outright) for the sake of a good headline, and artists and satirists have played with the news broadcast form since long before Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Here's a list of ten times both forms of fake news made real news -- and even, in a few cases, made history.
1. THE GREAT MOON HOAX (1835)
In the late summer of 1835, the New York Sun published a series of articles recounting in great detail the discovery, thanks to "a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle," of a civilization of winged apes (or "bat-men") living on the Moon. The articles were an elaborate hoax by Richard Adams Locke, a reporter for the Sun who published them under the name of a real astronomer, Sir John Herschel, without asking Herschel's permission. Locke's goal was probably to boost the Sun's circulation, and while it's debatable whether or not he succeeded, it's certain that the "Moon Hoax" caused an immediate and lasting sensation. It's been called the "first mass-media event," and it convinced many people, both in New York and around the world, that the Moon was inhabited. The impact of Locke's articles was magnified immensely by the fact that many other prominent newspapers reprinted and even endorsed the "discoveries"--an early example of media outlets jumping on the bandwagon of a popular and sensational story without first bothering to check their facts. Only after Locke admitted the hoax to a friend, who worked at a newspaper preparing to reprint it, did the truth finally come out.
2. "BROADCASTING THE BARRICADES" (1926)
Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox performed what is probably history's first fake news broadcast over BBC station 2EH in Edinburgh, Scotland, on January 16, 1926. Knox had an unusual and varied career as a Catholic priest, a detective fiction writer, and a satirist who--like "America's most famous Catholic," Stephen Colbert--enjoyed poking fun at the news media. In his BBC skit, entitled Broadcasting the Barricades, Knox played an announcer blandly reporting on a revolutionary uprising in London. The script is loaded with black humor--the announcer interrupts himself at one point to clarify that the Minister of Traffic was not "hanged from a lamp-post," as was previously reported, but instead from "a tramway post"--and Knox apparently never envisioned that anyone would take his skit seriously. But in 1926, many feared that a Communist uprising akin to the recent Russian Revolution might occur in the United Kingdom. These fears led some of Knox's listeners, who missed the opening announcement identifying the skit as a parody, to mistake his false news reports for the real thing. The response to Broadcasting the Barricades didn't really amount to a "panic"--as with the War of the Worlds broadcast, there are definite indications the press exaggerated the extent of the fright--but it nevertheless provided an early example of the BBC's reach and influence. On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times crowed that such a radio scare "could not happen in this country"--a statement Orson Welles put to the test twelve years later.
3. "THE MARCH OF TIME" (1937)
The most popular American news program in the 1930s was not the sober commentary of Edward R. Murrow or H. V. Kaltenborn, but instead The March of Time--a bizarre mixture of "journalism and showmanship" that prefigures much of the sensationalism of 21st century news coverage. Initially intended as an advertisement for Time magazine, The March of Time aired dramatized reenactments of major news stories, with actors impersonating everyone from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Al Capone. The scripts were praised for their factual accuracy, but they often required that actors speak lines that the newsmakers in question never actually said. This posed a host of ethical problems, and the impersonations were often so good that listeners believed that they were listening to recordings of real people and events, not actors and sound effects. For this reason, President Roosevelt requested that The March of Time stop fabricating his voice, and although its producers complied, the show caused plenty of other misunderstandings during its run from 1931 to 1939. The most serious occurred in 1937, after the disappearance of famed aviator Amelia Earhart. A radioman in Hawaii mistook a March of Time broadcast about the story as a real transmission from Earhart, briefly and fruitlessly reviving the search for her missing plane. The March of Time also made history by giving Orson Welles his big break into radio, and inspiring some of his most famous work in radio and film. The frightening realism of the War of the Worlds broadcast drew heavily on what Time Inc. founder Henry Luce called the show's style of "fakery in allegiance to the truth," and the phony newsreel at the beginning of "Citizen Kane" famously parodies the March of Time film series.
4. "THE CRIMSON WIZARD" (1938)
On the evening of September 30, 1938--exactly one month before the War of the Worlds broadcast--radio station WGN created a smaller yet somewhat similar stir with the debut of a new show called "The Crimson Wizard." The first episode of this pulp melodrama about a hunchbacked scientist named Peter Quill (no relation to the hero of Guardians of the Galaxy) featured a series of false radio transmissions about a fire in downtown Chicago. The next day, the front page of the Chicago Tribune reported that hundreds of agitated listeners had called the Tribune, as well as local police, to find out if the disaster was real. However, one must take this story with a heavy dose of salt, because the Chicago Tribune co-produced "The Crimson Wizard" with WGN, a radio station they owned (and whose call letters stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper.") The show probably did alarm a handful of people, but not enough to justify a front-page story. Instead, this appears to be fake news of a different kind: an early example of "native advertising," or ads hidden within news stories. Later that October, when Welles's War of the Worlds made headlines nationwide, the Chicago Tribune was one of the few major newspapers that barely covered the story--probably to avoid comparisons to "The Crimson Wizard."
5. "WAR OF THE WORLDS" (1938)
On the night before Halloween, 1938, the CBS radio network aired a new adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, produced and performed by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Welles brought the forty-year-old novel up to date by converting it into a series of fake news bulletins describing a Martian invasion of the eastern United States. Before the show was even over, newspaper offices, police departments, and radio stations all over the country experienced a sudden influx of calls from listeners who believed the broadcast to be real news. The story of the show, and the alleged "mass panic" it inspired, dominated the next day's newspapers, and rocketed Welles to stardom. Scholars have long questioned the extent of the fright, arguing that the panic was little more than a media myth. My own research into nearly two thousand letters written to Welles and the FCC by people who heard his broadcast firsthand suggests that some portion of his audience were deeply frightened by War of the Worlds, but very few of them actually panicked. And the vast majority of the people who heard the show knew right away, or realized very quickly, that it was fake. The newspaper reports of people fleeing their homes en masse or contemplating suicide because of the invasion were undoubtedly exaggerated. Thus, the story of Welles's War of the Worlds encompasses two forms of fake news: the broadcast itself, and the panic story that's become an American legend.
6. "WAR OF THE WORLDS" REMAKE IN ECUADOR (1949)
Inspired by Orson Welles's 1938 broadcast, and a 1944 remake in Chile that also caused a major stir, a radio station in Quito, Ecuador, produced their own fake news adaptation of War of the Worlds on February 12, 1949. Unlike the earlier programs (and Father Knox's Broadcasting the Barricades), the Ecuadorean War of the Worlds did not include an opening announcement identifying the show as fiction, and was likely designed to at least momentarily mislead its audience. Ecuador had experienced a sudden invasion from Peru less than a decade earlier, and when they heard the show many listeners assumed their country was under attack once again. It appears that many listeners rushed to the building that housed Quito's major newspaper, El Comercio, seeking more information. But that same building housed the radio station airing War of the Worlds, and when the crowd of people gathered outside figured out that they had been deceived, they became enraged and burned the building to the ground. As many as twenty people were killed and another fifteen injured in the riot, which caused about $350,000 in damage. Despite this, and the results of the show's predecessors in the United States and Chile, several other radio stations have remade War of the Worlds in the years since, often alarming at least a small portion of their listeners.
7. "SPECIAL BULLETIN" (1983) / "WITHOUT WARNING" (1994)
The dramatic effects of the various radio adaptations of War of the Worlds do not translate effectively to a visual medium like television. In 1983, NBC aired Special Bulletin, a telemovie about a nuclear attack on Charleston, South Carolina, structured as a series of fake news reports. Some network officials feared a repeat of the furor surrounding Welles's War of the Worlds, but the New York Times reported that very few people called their local NBC affiliates or other authorities to find out if the fake news was real. Eleven years later, CBS aired Without Warning, a loose TV adaptation of the 1938 broadcast produced for its fifty-sixth anniversary, which used real journalists instead of actors. The show had even less of an impact than Special Bulletin; according to the New York Times, the entire network only received about 300 phone calls about the show in total, most from people who simply didn't like it. The low-key response to both shows suggests that radio, with its unique properties as the "theater of the mind," can excite an audience's imagination in ways television can never match.
8. THE RALLY TO RESTORE SANITY AND/OR FEAR (2010)
"Fake news" took on new meaning in the first decade of the 21st century, thanks to the work of comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Their nightly satirical newscasts, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, routinely made fun of the so-called legitimate news media for failing to inform the public, even as these comedians kept their viewers better informed than the audiences of many regular news programs. On October 30, 2010, Stewart and Colbert appeared onstage for the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" in Washington, D.C., an event satirizing politicians and media pundits who capitalize on our fears and prejudices. "The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen," Stewart said in "a moment of sincerity" at the end of the event. "Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected, dangerous flaming ant epidemic." The rally, which one journalist called "history's largest act of press criticism," drew more than two hundred thousand people to the nation's capital. This was probably the largest response to a fake news event since Welles's War of the Worlds, and it occurred exactly seventy-two years to the day after the 1938 broadcast. Perhaps we should start referring to October 30 as "Fake News Day."
9. THE VERACRUZ TWITTER PANIC (2011)
Unlike television, whose visual element robs it of the radio's imaginative qualities, social media platforms are ideally suited to create a fake news fracas on the scale of War of the Worlds. The letters I analyze in Broadcast Hysteria show that much of the fright in 1938 was spread by word of mouth, when a few people who heard the broadcast passed the word on to many people who had not. The show essentially went viral, at a time when the telephone was the only social medium available to the average American. But false reports can spread much faster and farther in the age of Twitter and Facebook, with the potential for even greater consequences. The city of Veracruz, Mexico, witnessed a demonstration of this power in the summer of 2011. False tweets about attacks on local schools spread like wildfire on social media, inciting a small panic as parents rushed to save their children from the imagined danger. The incident occurred during a marked uptick in drug-related violence in Veracruz, which added credibility to the rumors. Twenty-six car crashes were blamed on the misleading tweets, and one official compared the hysteria to Welles's War of the Worlds.
10. THE "HACK CRASH" (2013)
The dangers of the rapid spread of misinformation on social media are even greater when humans are taken out of the equation entirely. In April 2013, the Associated Press's Twitter feed was hacked, tweeting a false report about a bombing attack on the White House. Automated stock trading programs designed to sense catastrophic news quickly reacted to the fake tweet by selling stocks, and two hundred billion dollars disappeared from the stock market in the space of two minutes. But the speed of the technology that spread the fake news also made it possible to fix the mistake almost immediately. The AP quickly corrected their Twitter feed, and the stock market soon recovered. We can never be entirely immune to frighteningly fake news, and we are in some ways more vulnerable to deception in today's hyperactive media environment. But that constant stream of information also makes it easier to verify false reports than it has ever been before.
Each of these media misunderstandings, from the "Great Moon Hoax" to War of the Worlds to the "Hack Crash," should remind us to constantly question the news we consume--especially when it seems alarming.
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