We’ve lived in this world long enough to understand that some folks just aren’t “on the level” and the things they say should be “taken with a grain of salt” because they’re “completely full of shit.” But even jaded, cynical bastards like us should expect more from reputable news organizations. Shouldn’t we?
Nope! Just take a look at a few of the more blatant lies that once passed for journalism.
#5. The New York Sun Reports the First Transatlantic Flight — in 1844
Picture yourself living in 1844. The American Civil War hasn’t happened yet, no one has electricity or flush toilets or phones or even T-shirts with ironic slogans on them — you’re pretty much living in a cave in the shape of a house and waiting for death. One day you wake up, open your copy of The New York Sun, and see this:
Your first thought was probably “Oh my stars and garters!” (or whatever the Victorian version of “What the actual fuck?!” was). People call the priest when they have a toothache, and yet they’re flying across the Atlantic Ocean? Huzzah! The age of miracles has begun! Maybe this stubbed toe doesn’t have to be a death sentence anymore! Reading the article closer, you find out that a European gentleman and his seven friends were attempting to steer their coal-powered hot air balloon from Wales to Paris when a sudden gale launched them toward the Atlantic Ocean. Seventy-five hours later, one of the aeronauts recorded the following in his journal:
“We are in full view of the low coast of South Carolina. The great problem is accomplished. We have crossed the Atlantic — fairly and easily crossed it in a balloon! God be praised! Who shall say that anything is impossible hereafter?”
New Yorkers practically trampled their neighbors to get a copy of the paper, because they all wanted a piece of that sweet, tangy history.
But Actually …
The New York Sun had been fed a hoax. Giggling coquettishly while the world ate up a complete fantasy was none other than this guy:
Yes, the hoaxer was none other than Edgar Allan Poe. At the time, Poe’s wife was terminally ill and he was struggling to make a living as a writer — two things that left him spiritually and financially bankrupt. So, by combining his powers of storytelling with a few real names and details, he had the makings of a potent hoax (and perhaps a future best seller?). Poe sold the story of the balloon ride to the Sun and watched with glee as people quickly went seven shades of crazy. Obviously, the paper had to retract the story after two days due to lack of evidence and common sense. No charges were filed because, well, just look at that li’l jokester’s hangdog expression! He’s clearly learned his lesson.
#4. The Daily Mirror Published (Faked) Torture Evidence
As a comedy site, we try not to bring up the Abu Ghraib torture scandal more than once a week, but in this case it’s a good reference point for what the British tabloid Daily Mirror published in 2004. Only a few months earlier the world had found out that American soldiers were playing a rousing game of Muslims and Torturers with Iraqi prisoners of war.
Fresh on the heels of Abu Ghraib, the Daily Mirror claimed to have a whole new set of torture pictures, this time perpetrated by the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, no less. Among the pictures published by the paper was a photo of a soldier urinating on a hooded prisoner. For one steaming moment, we started to wonder if the British weren’t as nice as their adorable slang implied.
But Actually …
The British military was not about to let the accusations go without a fight and immediately started an investigation. Media around the world examined the photos as well, right down to the authenticity of the piss streams, which just goes to show that there’s a thriving job market out there for virtually every fetish.
Their unanimous conclusion? The pictures were total fakes, as shown by no less than 14 errors pointed out by experts, including the wrong type of rifle and the cleanliness of the “prisoners.” But how could this have happened? You’d have to be a real dipshit to publish mysterious, unverified photos from unknown sources, right?
That’s the Duke of Douche himself, Piers Morgan, who at the time was the chief editor of the Mirror. Not only did he try to smear basically his entire country for no more than a few bucks and a moment in the limelight, but he refused to apologize when called out. Fortunately, the scandal ended up getting Morgan axed from the Mirror. Thus freed from the straining integrity of notoriously steadfast British journalism, Morgan went off to pursue his true calling. On CNN.
Hey, speaking of …
#3. CNN Claimed the U.S. Used WMDs on Our Own Defectors
These days, CNN is seen mostly as some kind of avant-garde comedy improv troupe that delivers news while performing wacky stunts and trying to keep a straight face. If we look further into their past, though, the journalistic decay may have started back in 1998, when CNN reported a hot new tip on the Vietnam War.
Up until 1998, the conventional wisdom on the 1970 covert operation Tailwind was that a small team of special ops American soldiers and about a hundred Vietnamese allies sneaked into occupied Laos to distract the North Vietnamese Army long enough for local forces to recapture a strong point from the commies. Despite heavy losses, the mission was a success — not only did the Tailwinders keep the enemy distracted for a few days, but they also stumbled on a ton of secret maps and intelligence at a North Vietnamese camp.
So you can imagine everyone’s shock when, 28 years later, CNN aired a report dramatically titled “Valley of Death.” According to CNN, Operation Tailwind was actually a mission to punish American military defectors hiding out in Laos. Because we’re gentle, noble, and forgiving America, those defectors were punished with a stern talking to followed by 10 minutes in the time-out corner.
And by time-out corner, we of course mean sarin gas.
So, to recap: In 1998, CNN accused the U.S. military of using a bioweapon of mass destruction against its own former citizens. Obviously CNN had some watertight sources to back up such outrageous claims.
But Actually …
Those sources, uh … went to another school. In Canada. You can’t see them, but they’re really hot, we promise.
It turned out there were two sources. One was a former officer who was taking medication for a nervous disorder and had previously written a book on Tailwind where he never once mentioned nerve gas. The other, Admiral Thomas Moorer, claimed that CNN took his words out of context and that a lot of the seemingly positive answers he gave regarding the use of nerve gas were just hypothetical thoughts. He was just rambling and spitballing about using nerve gas on defectors — you know how former heads of the Joint Chiefs of Staff do.
The Pentagon launched their own internal investigation, which ended in them taking several thousand words just to say that CNN was full of shit. The report also noted that gas was deployed during Tailwind, but it was just tear gas. The final straw came when CNN’s then-military adviser publicly resigned, saying that he’d already looked into the Tailwind story and found it to be worthless, but had been overruled by the network.
Eventually, CNN retracted the story, fired the producers responsible, and moved on to a much more credible career of novelty “holograms” and being Jon Stewart’s bitch.
#2. Canada’s National Post Claimed Iran Was Going to Color Code Their Jews
A lot of alarms went off in 2006 when prominent Canadian newspaper the National Post announced that the Iranian government had passed a law requiring Muslims to follow a national dress code and non-Muslims to wear special colors somewhere on their person that proudly displayed their non-Muslimness. Because, you know, that kind of thing’s never gone wrong before, has it?
As soon as the story ran, major right wing figures jumped on it and rode it like a prize bull, because it gave them the chance to do two of their favorite things at the same time: talk themselves into a lather about Nazi Germany and swing their Iranian hate-boners like flags in the wind. Jewish rabbis wrote angry letters to the U.N. demanding that something be done, and Canada’s prime minister verbally pissed on Iran for this outrage.
But Actually …
Amazingly, though, Iran wasn’t planning a re-enactment of World War II era Poland, much less Holocaust 2.0. The law in question, it turned out, had to do with Ayatollah Khamenei proclaiming that fashion designers should make more Islam-friendly designer clothes, instead of assuming that all Iranians wanted to imitate the cleavage-first-ask-questions-later style of the West.
The color codes for other religions bit, on the other hand, was a complete fabrication. Iran called up the Canadian government to demand a correction, and the National Post issued a retraction of the story, apologizing for trusting one guy’s word on the matter and not fact-checking his sources. As for the journalist himself, he handled the situation with as much tact and grace as you’d expect, stating: “As much as being accurate is important, in the end it’s important to side with what’s right. What’s wrong is siding with the terrorists.”
Which is a very flowery way to say “Fuck the truth; those guys are dicks anyway.”
#1. New York Newspapers Fell for the Old “Conscription for Gold” Routine
It was 1864, and since the American Civil War looked like it might not wrap up over the weekend, news went out that President Abraham Lincoln would be conscripting 400,000 more soldiers for the Union Army, as well as asking everyone else to take a day for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.”
That’s about as dismal a statement a wartime leader can make, short of shouting “The prophecy has come true!” and fleeing over the hills.
And since the tip had come from urgent dispatches sent by the Associated Press that arrived in the dead of night, you knew it was legitimate, important news.
But Actually …
The big tip didn’t come from a courier sent by the Associated Press; it was forged by two guys looking to make a quick buck. Joseph Howard Jr. and Francis Mallison knew that sudden bad news on the war front would cause gold prices to rise, because gold and ammo are the two things people most want to hoard when they think the world is ending (hence why golden ammo is such a recession-proof business).
As newspapermen, Howard and Mallison also knew that papers sent their staff home at about 3:30 a.m. and there was a gap before the daytime staff arrived in the morning. When a big story hits the office during that gap, it’s one lone sleepy dude’s judgment that decides if it will run the next morning. On May 17, Howard made a big gold investment. On May 18, he and Mallison forged the fake conscription announcement and sent it via courier to a few New York City newspapers.
Two major papers fell for it, the price of gold went up 10 percent, and Howard sold his shares and patted himself on the back with his new golden gloves. Of course, the only difference between an idiot and a genius is how far ahead they look for consequences. The fake story made it all the way to the Capitol, and the Union Army came to shut down the newspapers that published the report. Both Mallison and Howard were arrested for the scheme, but released after a few months.
Howard and Mallison got the last laugh, though. Two months later, Lincoln put out a call for more troops, exactly as they said he would. In a Shyamalan twist, Lincoln had been planning to issue a conscription call all along, but the hoax forced him to postpone those plans. Howard and Mallison were not released in light of the news, however, because fraud isn’t like horseshoes, where you get credit for landing close to the pole.