Because it's never a slow news day when you just make shit up.
From the moment man-kind could talk, we have lied to one another. A scene of puffery, perjury and plain old bullshit was set well before the Virgin Mary pulled off the biggest hoax in herstory; the immaculate conception. In fact, some of our most magical childhood memories were built on lies, and though you may have discovered that neither Santa Claus nor your parent’s perfect marriage ever existed, it will come as a surprise to learn that the wool has not been entirely pulled from over your eyes. The only difference now is we call it fake news, not fairytales.
Unlike fairytales, fake news is considered by leaders including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to be one of the greatest threats to democracy. Back in March, Putin signed a law enforcing tough fines for Russians who spread what the authorities regard as fake news. Last year, similar legislation sent a Danish man to prison in Malaysia after he posted criticism of the countries’ police force on Instagram. Fake news has reached such epidemic proportions that a fake viral story got picked up last year by leading titles Huffington Post, The Guardian and The Mirror claiming some beards contained more poo than toilets…
So, now it seems the days of free speech and a good laugh are numbered, SKIP Dinner delves into the past to uncover the best hoaxes of modern history and the media outlets that fell for them. It was good whilst it lasted folks!
The Great Moon Hoax at The Sun
In the summer of 1835, a very entrepreneurial young man named Richard Adams Locke took the work of English astronomer John Herschel and turned it into a news story that took The Sun from a paper hawked on the streets of New York by newsboys to the most widely read news publication in the world, with a circulation of 19,360 and readers at Yale.
Through a series of six articles and under the alias Dr. Andrew Grant, the expanding readership delighted in tales of unicorns, two-legged beavers and furry, winged humanoids resembling bats.
Numerous competing papers reported their own versions of events and by September, the Morning Herald broke the story that it was all fake. However, it was already too late. The Sun had now established itself as the leader of the ‘penny press’, the first mass media.
“They averaged four feet in height, were covered, except on the face, with short and glossy copper-coloured hair, and had wings composed of a thin membrane"
- DR. ANDREW GRANT
"I'm having thoughts. Really getting into thinking"
- ALLEGRA COLEMAN
Allegra Coleman at Esquire
In the November 1996 issue of Esquire and as a parody of the entertainment industries’ obsession with ‘It Girls’, journalist Martha Sherrill invented a fictional celebrity named Allegra Coleman.
Played by aspiring actress Ali Larter, Sherrill’s article described Coleman’s upcoming movie with Woody Allen, her on/off relationship with David Schwimmer and the accompanying photography by Troy House even featured on the magazine’s front cover.
The incident jump-started Larter’s acting career after Esquire became inundated with calls from studios and talent scouts eager to offer Coleman scripts, though Schwimmer’s people reportedly complained about the invasion of privacy.
FAINT on The Donahue Show
On the 21st of January, 1985, 7 audience members at the Donahue Show proceeded to faint during a live broadcast.
Alarmed by this bizarre outbreak of swooning, the rest of the show was cancelled and producers theorised that the hot temperature may have caused people to collapse.
A few days later Alan Abel, a well-known prankster, took responsibility for the stunt claiming he was protesting against the deteriorating quality of day-time TV and that a group called FAINT (Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic TV) had spearheaded the protest.
"We want to raise the consciousness of the public by going unconscious"
- ALAN ABEL
"Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms"
- JANET COOKE
Jimmy’s World at The Washington Post
On 28th of September 1980, an article appeared in the Washington Post detailing the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict that lived for a fix. Titled ‘Jimmy’s World’ and written by staff writer Janet Cooke, the article immediately generated controversy, and though many demanded that Cooke reveal Jimmy’s location, she refused, claiming her life would be in danger from drug dealers if she did.
After a city-wide search of Washington D.C, and mounting exposure, Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize on account of her story. Weeks later Cooke finally admitted the story was fictitious and resigned from the Post, who were forced to return the Pulitzer Prize, humiliated.
Cooke briefly re-emerged in 1996 to tell her story to GQ magazine. The movie rights from that interview were reported to have subsequently sold for $1.5 million.
Grunge Speak in The New York Times
On November the 15th, 1992, the New York Times published an article analyzing the evolution of the grunge movement. This article stated that like any self-respecting subculture, Grungers had developed their own lexicon of ‘grunge speak’ and included phrases like ‘swingin’ on the flippity-flop’ (meaning hanging out) and ‘bloated, big bag of bloatation’ (longform for drunk).
Three months later, a small Chicago-based magazine called The Baffler revealed that a bored receptionist at the Seattle-based Sub Pop Records had just made the whole thing up after receiving a call from the Times’ reporter. The New York Times later obnoxiously dismissed the prank as ‘irritating’.
The Baffler gloated that "when the Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that's funny."
WACK SLACKS: Old Ripped Jeans
FUZZ: Heavy wool sweaters
PLATS: Platform shoes
SWINGIN' ON THE FLIPPITY-FLOP: Hanging out
HARSH REALM: Bummer
COB NOBBLER: Loser
DISH: Desirable guy
BLOATED, BIG BAG OF BLOATATION: Drunk
LAMESTAIN: Uncool person
TOM-TOM CLUB: Uncool outsiders
ROCK ON: A happy goodbye