10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History

Larry Holzwarth - January 19, 2018

The term fake news is very much in vogue although ill defined. What exactly is meant by the term varies with the user. Sometimes it refers to a hoax, sometimes it refers to what the user contends is a non-issue, and sometimes it is simply the denial of a truth. Whichever of these it means to convey, fake news is not in and of itself something new to the American lifestyle. It has been around since the earliest days of the American experience. All that is new is the speed of its proliferation due to social media. Once falsehoods took weeks, months, or even years to spread, now they move in seconds, gaining credibility through repetition.

The inclination prevalent today is to believe whatever confirms preformed opinion, and to seek out information which provides that confirmation, rather than to form an hypothesis to be proven or disproven through the acquisition of facts. Any belief, no matter how bizarre or misinformed, can be readily supported by media which present false information in the form of fake news. There are many examples of similar misleading of the people throughout history, including the yellow journalism of the Gilded Age, which led the country into war with Spain. Propaganda too has been in the past a form of fake news, creating false beliefs to support false claims.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
A cartoon from Puck Magazine presents the evil spirits produced by the press, the sole news media of the day. Wikimedia

Here are ten examples of fake news and their impact on history.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
The New York Journal claims the Maine was sunk by an enemy and offers a $50,000 reward for identifying the culprit. Wikimedia

Remember the Maine

During the Cuban Revolution in late 1897 the USS Maine, one of the United States Navy’s newest and most modern warships, was sent to Havana as a show of strength and to protect American interests in Cuba. In February the ship exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, with heavy loss of life. Although there was little evidence of hostile action by Spain leading to the destruction of the Maine, and even less motive for the Spanish to open hostilities against the United States, public opinion in America was soon calling for war against Spain.

William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were competing owners of the New York Journal and New York based The World respectively. Both newspapers had devoted extensive coverage to the Cuban Revolution and what they reported as Spanish atrocities as it went on. The Journal reported Spanish officials conducted strip searches of American women on steamships entering Havana Harbor, searching for messages directed towards Cuban rebel leaders. The article was supported with a picture drawn by Frederic Remington of a nude woman being probed by three male Spanish authorities. There was no evidence of such searches occurring, and the outrage generated by the pictures was not limited to their readers in New York.

A sunken battleship in the harbor was a different matter entirely. Photographs of the Maine’s masts rising above the water clearly proved the ship had sunk in the harbor while lying at anchor. Both Pulitzer and Hearst ran banner headlines claiming the Maine had been sunk by a mine or a torpedo placed or fired by Spain. A preliminary investigation by a Naval Board declared the cause of the explosion was likely a mine, and the competing newspapers provided “evidence” in the form of false interviews of non-existent witnesses and survivors of the ship.

In truth the Maine was most likely sunk by a fire in one or more of the bunkers in which it carried the bituminous coal used to heat its boilers. Such information was neither available nor desirable at the time due to the demands of the business interests which wanted Spain out of Cuba and the politicians who represented their interests in Washington. Even Pulitzer agreed that Spain had nothing to do with the sinking, although privately, as his newspaper ran daily coverage blaming Spain for the explosion.

The fake news story of Spain deliberately sinking the USS Maine added to the growing pressure for the United States to act against Spain, which it did in a ten week long conflict known as the Spanish-American War. It was not the first, nor the last time that stories known to be false were used to create or shape public opinion.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
Aircraft from USS Constellation attack a North Vietnamese gunboat in retaliation for the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, August 5, 1964. US Navy

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident was actually two separate incidents claimed to have occurred on August 2 and August 4, 1964. USS Maddox, a US Navy destroyer, engaged in combat with North Vietnamese gunboats when attacked by the latter, and the US government used the attacks as impetus to ramp up American involvement in Southeast Asia. A study of the incident by the National Security Agency, declassified in 2005, revealed that in the incident of August 2 Maddox fired first, not in response to North Vietnamese fire. It also revealed that the reported second attack on August 4 was inaccurate, and that the North Vietnamese did not approach Maddox on that date.

Late on the night of August 4 Americans watching television were surprised when scheduled programming was interrupted by the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who informed them that there had been attacks launched by the North Vietnamese Navy against the United States Navy. Johnson claimed the attacks were against two US warships, Maddox and USS Turner Joy. Johnson said that the attack occurred “…on the high seas.”

TIME Magazine reported on the story, increasing the number of attacking North Vietnamese vessels to “…at least six of them…” Life and Newsweek ran similar distortions of the attack, embellished with comments from undisclosed sources. Meanwhile Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was informed by the US Commander of Naval Forces in the Tonkin Gulf, Captain John Herrick, that the reported attack on August 4 was highly questionable.

Johnson ordered “retaliatory” air strikes against North Vietnamese military installations and gunboats and pressured Congress for a joint resolution giving him greater flexibility in Vietnam. Congress responded with the Southeast Asia Resolution which provided Johnson with the authority to prosecute the war in Vietnam without a formal declaration of war. American involvement in Vietnam began to grow from that moment.

The truth of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 has still not been fully revealed, but enough information has been declassified and released to confirm that it was not what was reported by Johnson to the American people and Congress, and that he and McNamara knew that the reports of the August 4 attack were false. Johnson was elected President in a landslide November 1964. The American public support of his policies and actions in Vietnam would steadily deteriorate from that point.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
Portrait of H.L. Mencken, American satirist, journalist, English scholar, and the Sage of Baltimore. National Archives

H.L. Mencken’s A Neglected Anniversary

The power of a piece of fake news to survive and thrive has probably never been demonstrated more effectively than it was by H.L. Mencken. In 1917 Mencken was at the height of his considerable powers as a writer, satirist, and journalist. In December of that year, writing for the New York Evening Mail, Mencken presented a piece which noted the recently passed unobserved anniversary of the introduction of the bathtub to America.

According to Mencken’s story the first bathtub in America was installed in Cincinnati Ohio on December 20, 1842. Mencken created a non-existent address as the location where the first tub, made of mahogany, was installed and described the local (to Cincinnati) fame it immediately acquired. Mencken reported that many other wealthy Cincinnatians were quickly installing their own custom built bathtubs, and that a backlash against their use was soon generated.

The story went on to discuss legislation in several states over bathtubs, health concerns by informed doctors over excessive bathing (Philadelphia failed to pass an ordinance prohibiting bathing between November and March by two votes) and Virginia imposing a $30 tax on bathtubs. Boston made bathing in tubs illegal, but seldom if ever imposed penalties for violating the law. Millard Fillmore, as the Vice-President, bathed in the original tub in Cincinnati while visiting that city and later as President had one installed in the White House in 1851, despite political opposition pointing out that no earlier President had needed a bathtub installed at public expense.

Mencken’s story ended by having George McClellan bringing the first bathtub to the US Army during the Civil War in 1862, and its installation in prisons in the United States commencing in 1870. Throughout the article Mencken produced statements which could be easily refuted. It was entirely fiction, and was received as being entirely fact. It was reprinted and reported on nationwide, including in Cincinnati where the described house and address was non-existent. Today it is known as a hoax, but occasionally still arises as a source for questionable facts.

Mencken was astonished that anyone could read the piece and believe it to be true, even thirty years later. During that time the story was quoted as a factual source in newspapers, magazines, medical tomes and even some encyclopedias. “Scarcely a month goes by,” wrote Mencken in 1949, “that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
Winston Churchill in 1941. British agents used fake news stories to influence American opinion beginning in 1940. Library of Congress

Foreign Intervention in United States Elections Through Fake News

The use of propaganda, illegal spying on citizens, and fake news reporting has been used to influence the outcome of the American Presidential election by a foreign power. The election was the third election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940 and the foreign power was Great Britain, then locked in a death struggle with Nazi Germany. From the time of the British Army’s collapse and the defeat of the French in the spring of 1940 and the entrance of the United States into the war following Pearl Harbor, the British Secret Intelligence Service operated within the United States to influence its policies. There was collusion with American operatives who assisted the British.

Isolationists, communists, and those who directly supported the Germans such as the American Nazi Party, howled loudly and often about British manipulation of the American media to influence opinion. Their accusations were dismissed by liberal media and the supporters of intervention in Europe as paranoia. British Security Coordination (BSC) was registered with the State Department as a foreign entity and worked as part of the British Passport Control Office. BSC was originally tasked with countering Nazi propaganda, among other things, and was soon creating propaganda of its own, as well as placing news stories in American publications.

BSC worked in liaison with the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, the OSS through William Donovan, and with the knowledge and approval of FDR. BSC used its influence to shape news stories and opinion pieces in the New York Herald Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, and critically Radio New York Worldwide. Stories on Radio New York were picked up for distribution by other outlets across the country, spreading anti-German and pro-British “news” nationwide. BSC hired an American polling company, Market Analysts Inc., which was run by Sanford Griffith. Griffith was an operative for British Intelligence, and produced polling data which was invariably favorable to the British or to American intervention on the British side.

The polling data was also used to influence Republican policy, implying that the isolationist positions of many leading Republicans such as Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft were out of touch with mainstream Republicans. BSC efforts included targeting specific Republican candidates for office other than president, including New York congressman Hamilton Fish III. BSC funded a campaign to defeat Fish, an influential Republican, which included fake news stories of Nazi officials paying exorbitant rents for property Fish owned, with the money being used to pay for his anti-British pro-German policies and public statements. The attack on Fish originally appeared in the Washington Post only days before the election. Fish won re-election, but by substantially less votes than expected before the story appeared.

Two election cycles later the BSC attack on Fish finally paid off when he failed to retain his seat. British intelligence operatives continued to provide stories to reporters throughout the war to influence American opinion. Operatives who worked for the BSC included the writers Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming, who helped create the stories which were then presented to the American people by the likes of Walter Winchell, Ulric Bell, and many others.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
A frail looking FDR in a photograph taken on the day before his death in Warm Springs. FDR Presidential Library

FDR and the press

Sometimes fake news can be the result of what is left unsaid, the story which isn’t reported, information which the public is denied. It may seem impossible to believe today, but the majority of the American people were completely unaware, throughout the long presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that he was confined to a wheel chair, unable to walk without the assistance of heavy leg braces and something to lean against. Americans knew that their President had been stricken with polio, but the amount of his infirmity was a closely held secret.

FDR was the first President to employ a full-time Press Secretary. He was Steve Early, a professional journalist and the grandson of Confederate General Jubal Early. Early operated his office with an open door policy, but also enforced the demands of his boss. Photographs of the President in his wheelchair were not allowed. Nor were references to the President’s condition. Health reports, that the President had a cold for example, were vetted by the White House. Any reporter who violated any of the President’s rules would quickly find his credentials revoked, more importantly his employer would lose access to the White House as well.

Roosevelt liked to hold press conferences while sitting behind his desk, unburdened of the need to appear before cameras. The press conferences were less formal and more relaxed than today’s equivalent, and access to the President was limited to the conferences or to granted interviews. This allowed Roosevelt to control much of the news which emanated from his White House, including what wasn’t for dissemination until he was ready. FDR also enjoyed authority over the newly created FCC, which determined the status of licensing for American radio stations, and was not above flexing that muscle to ensure radio reporters toed the line with their print counterparts.

Much like another wealthy New Yorker who would come along many years later, Roosevelt took criticism, or even too probing of a question, as a personal insult and responded in kind. Roosevelt believed that any reporter who was not 100% for his programs was against them, and him personally, and those reporters were the subject of personal attacks and long grudges from the President. FDR once gave a German Iron Cross to a reporter with the instructions to give it to a columnist at his paper, who FDR said was giving aid to the enemy through the criticism of the administration in his columns.

The failure of the media to address Roosevelt’s health became critical during the election of 1944, when the clearly exhausted Roosevelt was obviously dying. Whether he would have been re-elected for a fourth time were his true condition known is anybody’s guess, but the failure of the media to inform the public of the President’s health, and the allowance of reports that he was fine, led the public to make a decision based on false premises, created from the lack of real news.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
A jubilant Harry Truman displaying obviously fake news. Truman Library

Dewey Defeats Truman

Possibly the most glaring example of fake news is the banner headline across the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune (as it was then called) on the morning of November 3, 1948. A famous photograph of an overjoyed Truman, grinning from ear to ear as he brandishes the obviously incorrect newspaper on a train platform, has saved that bit of inaccuracy for posterity. Given the President’s relationship with that particular newspaper the moment was likely especially sweet for him.

The election of 1948 saw three candidates for the office of the Presidency, Democrat and incumbent Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and so-called Dixiecrat but actually independent Strom Thurmond. The years of Truman’s Presidency had been exceptionally difficult as the nation came out of the war economy and struggled with recession, the emerging Cold War, the collapse of the British Empire, and the need to care for its several million veterans. Truman’s popularity was at a nadir.

Throughout Truman’s years in office leading up to the election of 1948 the Tribune had been a thorn in the President’s side, and the paper and President loathed each other. Only about 15% of the nation’s newspapers endorsed a Truman election, but few had gone as far as the Tribune, who had called the President a nincompoop on its editorial pages, and had strongly endorsed Dewey. According to national polls, Truman’s low popularity and the defecting southern Democrats who called themselves Dixiecrats ensured Dewey would be the first Republican President in sixteen years.

Publication deadlines and the means by which the Tribune was printed meant that the early editions needed to be typeset before the polls even closed in many states, and the Tribune relied on the judgement of Arthur Henning, its Washington correspondent, for a prediction of the outcome. Henning in turn relied on the polling data and his personal contacts to make the prediction of a Dewey victory. The Tribune’s headline was also based on the response of its readers and others to its many attacks on Truman throughout the campaign.

Over 150,000 copies of the newspaper with the famous erroneous headline were printed before it was clear that the report was incorrect, and how many Chicagoans awoke to learn that Truman had been defeated before learning later in the day that he had won is unknown. Undoubtedly it was many. Truman ended up carrying over 300 electoral votes and the Democratic Party won control of both houses of Congress. The fake news report on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune was short-lived, but epic.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
The Glomar Explorer slides down the ways at its launching. The business community and the public were given a fake news story about the massive ship’s purpose. CIA

The Glomar Explorer

Fake news can sometimes be used to cover real events, a made up story shielding the truth from prying eyes. Whether such fake news is nefarious is determined by the perspective of the recipient and the activities inspired by the information itself. An example of this is the story of the Glomar Explorer, which was built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company at the request of Howard Hughes, who intended to use the ship, or so he said, for his Global Marine Development Incorporated.

Hughes informed the media that the ship was being built for the purpose of mining manganese nodules from the floor of the world’s oceans. The news was greeted with interest by other companies and countries who began to explore similar ideas. The manganese nodules could be sources of in addition to manganese, copper, nickel, cobalt, and iron, with traces of several other minerals. Since the project was under the direction of Howard Hughes it naturally drew attention, and several consortiums of international corporations and government organizations performed studies of similar operations.

In truth, the Glomar Explorer had nothing to do with the extraction of manganese or any other type of mining or ocean minerals extraction. The Hughes Glomar Explorer was built for an entirely different purpose and the story of manganese extraction was fake news to hide its true purpose. Glomar Explorer was built to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, the K-129, which had sunk in the Pacific in 1968. The manganese extraction news reports were to distract the Soviets from its true purpose. Beyond the use of his name, to which Hughes had agreed, he had no other relationship to the project.

The ship was built under the direction of the CIA, the NSA, and the United States Navy, and operated by civilian contractors under the employ of the CIA. The cover story held up through its construction and only deployment, when it recovered portions of the sunken submarine including human remains. While the Glomar Explorer was stationed over the sunken submarine, Soviet naval vessels operated in the vicinity, and it was later learned that the Soviets were aware of the true nature of the vessel, but they did nothing to interfere with the operation.

How much of the submarine was actually raised remains a subject of debate. The Glomar Explorer was never used for any other mission as it was incapable of performing any mining or operation other than the heavy lifting for which it had been designed. It was converted to a deep sea drilling platform and sold in the late 1990s but its operation was largely unprofitable and by 2015 it was delivered for scrapping.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
Senator Joe McCarthy built his career and reputation on unsubstantiated accusations and false representation. US Senate

Joseph McCarthy

Joe McCarthy was an undistinguished first term Senator from Wisconsin when he delivered a speech in Wheeling West Virginia to a group of Republican women in which he brandished a piece of paper claiming it to be a list of State Department employees who were known members of the Communist Party. McCarthy is often quoted as claiming that the list – if he had one at all – contained 205 names, later he informed President Truman that it contained 57 names, and in a subsequent speech in the Senate the number was revised again, to 81 names.

The Senate assigned a subcommittee to investigate McCarthy’s charges. Meanwhile McCarthy, thoroughly pleased with himself and his newfound notoriety, continued to level charges against the State department in general and against specific individuals, although he offered no evidence and produced nothing to support his claims. The subcommittee, known as the Tydings Committee for Senator Millard Tydings who chaired it, found McCarthy’s accusations to be without merit, and called them a fraud and a hoax. Partisan Republican Senators rallied to McCarthy’s support and called the committee treasonous.

McCarthy didn’t stop with labeling whomever he wished as a communist, he also identified several individuals, usually through innuendo, as homosexuals at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The illegality of homosexual activity made those who practiced it subject to blackmail, or so the theory went at the time, and McCarthy’s push to have government agencies actively pursue removal from government employ anyone suspected of homosexual activity helped increase his fame and his approval rating. As with his accusations of communism, McCarthy offered no evidence to support his charges.

McCarthy’s shameless use of false accusations and unsupportable charges were played for the benefit of the press, creating news which the press dutifully reported but which neither they nor the Senator creating the stories could verify. The press was competing with the emerging medium of television, which needed content to fill its airtime, and McCarthy’s incendiary commentary and accusations provided plenty. Any Senator or reporter who failed to support McCarthy, or who had the temerity to oppose him, was quickly labeled a communist or a supporter of communism.

Because he chose to accuse his enemies of being communists McCarthy quickly received the support of the Roman Catholic Church, a staunch opponent of communism. As McCarthy gained power and prestige his false accusations and unsupportable attacks became more and more out of control, and the media which had published his fake news gradually turned against him. Edward R. Murrow, on television, presented McCarthy in a light not visible from the printed page, and one of the first practitioners of planned fake news found his career brought to an end. The Senate censured McCarthy for among several other things, multiple counts of fraud and deception.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
One of the residents of the moon, according to the New York Sun. New York Public Library

The Moon People in the New York Sun

In the sense that it relied primarily on revenue from advertising as its main income, The Sun, published in New York was the world’s first modern newspaper. Advertising fees were based on a projection of how many people would see them, so circulation numbers were critical to the newspaper’s survival. The Sun was founded in 1833 and was one of the first newspapers in America to hire reporters who were tasked with researching events and writing stories about them for public consumption. Before The Sun most stories printed in newspapers were provided by readers or rewritten from the content of other newspapers.

Advertising fees were based on circulation. In 1835, The Sun, which was sold on the street by vendors as well as delivered to homes and businesses, had a daily circulation of around 8,000 copies. The Sun’s editor, Richard Adams Locke, produced a story based on the work of astronomer John Herschel. According to The Sun, Herschel had observed life on the moon, using a telescope in South Africa. The series of six stories began on August 25, 1835, after being announced four days earlier, and The Sun claimed that it was being reprinted from reports in a Scottish newspaper.

The story described animals living on the moon similar to those found on earth in some cases, and others mythical to earth such as unicorns. Herschel was described as seeing winged bipedal figures similar in body to humans, with temples and other buildings in cities. Oceans, rivers and lakes were described.

John Herschel was then in South Africa, occupied with serious scientific lunar observations, and when he became aware of the story he found it entertaining, and even remarked on it to colleagues, although later he found himself beset with questions from some who read it and believed it to be true. Locke’s motivation for writing the story, which was never retracted by The Sun, is unknown. It may have been simply to increase circulation, or it may have been a satirical response to outlandish scientific “discoveries” claimed by some and published in other newspapers.

The circulation for The Sun shot up for a time, but the long term effect of the story, which by mid-fall was known to be entirely false, remains questionable. The Sun’s story may have inspired French writer Jules Verne, who referred to it in his novel From the Earth to the Moon more than thirty years later. The series ended by reporting that the lens of Herschel’s unique telescope had been destroyed by solar rays, starting a fire which burned down his observatory, and no further reports were possible.

10 Crazy Examples of Fake News in American History
Walter Duranty filed reports to the New York Times which ignored the facts before his eyes. Wikimedia

The Holodomor and the New York Times

Josef Stalin ordered that grain quotas in the Ukraine be increased in 1932 to the point that Ukrainian peasants responsible for producing it would have none left for their own sustenance. The NKVD enforced Stalin’s policy, collecting the grain and overseeing the death by starvation of an estimated 7 million Ukrainian people as a result. Stalin’s actions were motivated by his desire to end Ukrainian nationalism.

Walter Duranty was the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work from Moscow in 1931. In 1932 and the following year, while Stalin’s policies were leading to the deaths of so many in the Ukraine, Duranty sent back stories to the New York Times which lauded the work of the Soviet government and Josef Stalin. The New York Times was the source for much of the international news of smaller newspapers across the country, which could not afford their own overseas correspondents, and Duranty’s work was repeated nationwide.

Duranty reported on some deaths in the Ukraine, attributing them to disease rather than starvation, and described reports from other sources of the true events in the Ukraine as being nothing more than “malignant propaganda” from those hostile to the Soviet regime. Duranty’s reports denying the famine and the effects of Stalin’s policies were a major influence on government policy towards the Soviet Union, given the prestige of the New York Times.

There were obviously conflicting reports describing the famine, the numbers of people dying, and the effects of Soviet policy, but the Times denied them and stood by their correspondent. Duranty too defended his reporting against contradictory accounts appearing in British newspapers, describing them as, “…there appears from a British source a big scare story in the American press about famine in the Soviet Union…” Duranty published his comments in a story which appeared in the Times under the headline “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving.”

Malcolm Muggeridge was the Moscow correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, a British publication which reported the events of the Holodomor as they occurred, and frequently debated with Duranty in print. In his memoirs years later, Muggeridge referred to what he called Duranty’s “persistent lying.” The New York Times wrote in 1990 that Duranty’s work from Moscow was a result of his believing in the system installed by the Communists. “He saw what he wanted to see,” wrote the Times.