BOB GARFIELD: And now for our wrap-up of fake news headlines. On Wednesday, New York Times readers were greeted with the headline, “Iraq War Ends,” among other improbable stories, thanks to a group of left-wing pranksters who distributed copies around New York City and put up a fake Times website.
More screed than parody, the phony Great Gray Lady imagined such events as a Bush treason trial, with all the wit and subtlety of a whoopee cushion. And then there was this: DAVID SHUSTER: Who did tell Fox News that Palin could not identify the countries involved in NAFTA and that she thought Africa was a country, instead of a continent? It turns out it was Martin Eisenstadt, a McCain policy advisor who has come forward today to identify himself as the source of the leaks. BOB GARFIELD: That was MSNBC’s David Shuster, first on cable news to reveal the previously anonymous source on Fox News’ tantalizing Sarah Palin scoop. The only problem was, the supposed source was an Internet prankster too, as Shuster could have discovered in 20 seconds with a Google search.
The blogosphere was quick to jump on this hoax as the latest proof of mainstream media’s irrelevancy. But if you, as I do, keep your finger constantly on the pulse of -Mrs. Garfield, you'd have to consider another interpretation.
[IN RUSSIAN ACCENT]: Garfield, she argued, what it is proof of is you can't trust the Internet. MSNBC made a mistake, da, but we need the authority and accountability of real news organizations. Otherwise, how do we know what is real and what is invented – is what she said, and it’s a fair question.
But what about when the authoritative accountable news organization, itself, perpetrates the hoax? Fake news, it turns out, has a long tradition, as we discussed about a year and a half back with the Columbia Journalism Review’s Robert Love. ROBERT LOVE: Hoaxes became part of newspaperdom’s menu of entertainments. Nobody really thought the worse of the papers for doing it. In some cases, they would reveal at the last line that this was all made up. Sometimes it took place on, you know, April 1st. But many times it never did. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the much-vaunted relationship of trust between reporters and readers, did that not matter back then? ROBERT LOVE: Well, I mean, that’s a hard question to answer, but the truth is, is that sometime after the first couple of decades of the 20th century, newspapers began to acquire the mantle of authority, almost a quasi-governmental source of truth about what was going on.
To a large part, that didn't exist for many papers in the mid-19th century. There was news. It was often biased. It was often kind of like some of the news you get today in certain outlets that have a kind of slant to them one way or the other. And people understood that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about the Central Park Zoo hoax in The New York Herald in the 1870s. ROBERT LOVE: The Central Park Zoo hoax is one of the most famous hoaxes in the great landscape of media hoaxes. And there’s a rumor that the publisher said he could keep every New Yorker indoors just by publishing a story like this one day, and somebody said, I'll take you up on that bet.
But what happened was on November 9th, 1874 The Herald talked about a Central Park Zoo escape. There was a lion seen inside a church, a rhinoceros had fallen into the river. The National Guard was called out, and I believe it was 27 people were already dead and hundreds injured. The paper called it a, quote, “bloody and fearful carnival,” and that the animals were still on the loose.
People started reading this article and they just set out to defend themselves, their homes and their families. But the very end of it, it said, “The entire story given above is pure fabrication.” [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds like a million laughs.
ROBERT LOVE: So [LAUGHS] and the point of it was if a hoax needs a higher moral point, it was that the conditions of the animals at the zoo and their cages was thought to be not up to snuff by these crusading reporters. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the deal with all the hoaxes in New York City? Is it just that that’s where some of the biggest papers were, or is there something about the nature of this city that lends itself to it? ROBERT LOVE: Well, more papers, I think, Brooke. Also, we have better records of the old newspapers in New York than we do elsewhere. There were thousands of hoaxes that are unrecorded in small newspapers throughout the West, especially, in the 19th century. Many of them were about finding the remains of a petrified man. This was a hoax that became such a cliché that Mark Twain himself set out to shatter it by writing the best petrified man story he could. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] A hardy perennial. ROBERT LOVE: Mm-hmm. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one of history’s most peculiar and most persistent hoaxes, you note in your story, was by H.L. Mencken, but not in Baltimore, where he was most famous for working. It was in The New York Evening Mail in 1917, and it was headlined, “A Neglected Anniversary.” ROBERT LOVE: Mencken’s neglected anniversary was the natural history of the plumbed bathtub in America. It was so well-constructed, so well-written, that it was quoted in sources high and low from then on.
It stated that a man named Adam Thompson had become acquainted with the tub in Europe, and had brought one here and it had been basically roundly pooh-poohed by Americans. But finally, President Millard Fillmore, going against the political grain, bravely ordered one put into the White House, and from then on the bathtub was an American institution. [BROOKE LAUGHS] Of course, all of this is completely made up. BROOKE GLADSTONE: He claimed that the city of Boston made it illegal to bathe except, quote, “under medical advice.” [LAUGHTER] He said that here, the bathtub was denounced as “an epicurean and obnoxious toy from England, designed to corrupt the democratic simplicity of the Republic?” ROBERT LOVE: Well, it’s interesting that recent surveys have found out that too much use of the bathtub can do all those things and more. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Weaken the simplicity of the Republic? ROBERT LOVE: Kidding. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, we did some digging and found that President Truman, in a 1952 speech in Philadelphia at the American Hospital Association Convention, repeated parts of Mencken’s story as fact. PRESIDENT TRUMAN: The local medical association in Cincinnati, Ohio, passed a resolution calling Mrs. Fillmore an indecent person because she had put a bathtub in the White House. This medical association in Cincinnati said that it was unsanitary, that it was unhealthy, that no person should take all his clothes off at one time. ROBERT LOVE: [LAUGHS] That sounds right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much. ROBERT LOVE: Thank you, Brooke. BOB GARFIELD: Robert Love teaches at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He talked to us about hoaxes in 2007.