Hoaxes Throughout History
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Hoaxes by Journalists

On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the "virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil." The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show's highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, "For those who love this dish, there's nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti." The Swiss Spaghetti... More…
In 1962 there was only one tv channel in Sweden, and it broadcast in black and white. On April 1st of that year, the station's technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to a new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to display color reception. All they had to do was pull a nylon stocking over their tv screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people were taken in. Regular color broadcasts only commenced in Sweden on April 1, 1970. More…
In June 1971 Robert Patterson, a 66-year-old newsman, filed a series of five reports for the San Francisco Examiner detailing his odyssey through mainland China. His journey was inspired by the popular interest in Chinese culture following President Nixon's official visit to that country. The series ran on the Examiner's front page. Patterson discussed details such as his difficulty obtaining an entry visa, witnessing Chinese citizens doing calisthenics in the street every morning, and receiving acupuncture at a Chinese hospital for chronic hip pain. However, his reports caused Paul Avery, a reporter at the rival San Francisco Chronicle, to... More…
In 1960, twenty-year-old Dan Rattiner started a small paper during his summer vacation in the Hamptons. He gave copies of it away for free, making money from the advertisements. It was the first free paper in the United States. Gradually Dan started more papers, each of them serving a different community in the Hamptons. He called all of them collectively Dan's Papers, and they soon became the most widely read papers in the Hamptons. Dan wrote most of the content himself, but from the start he approached the task with a sense of humor. Many of the stories were humorous hoaxes, which earned him the nickname the "Hoaxer of the Hamptons." More…
On April 1, 1977, the British newspaper The Guardian published a special seven-page supplement devoted to San Serriffe, a small republic said to consist of several semi-colon-shaped islands located in the Indian Ocean. A series of articles affectionately described the geography and culture of this obscure nation. Its two main islands were named Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. Its capital was Bodoni, and its leader was General Pica. The Guardian's phones rang all day as readers sought more information about the idyllic holiday spot. Only a few noticed that everything about the island was named after printer's terminology. The success of this... More…
Janet Cooke's article in the Washington Post about 'Jimmy,' an 8-year-old heroin addict, won her a Pulitzer Prize. But pressure mounted for Cooke to reveal where Jimmy lived so that authorities could help him. As Cooke steadfastly refused to do this, rumors began to swirl suggesting there was no Jimmy. Finally, the editors at the Post confronted Cooke and demanded she provide proof of the boy's existence. Cooke then admitted that she had never met Jimmy and that much of her story was fictitious. Cooke resigned, and the Post, humiliated by the incident, returned the Pulitzer Prize. More…
The announcement by the German news magazine Stern that it had discovered the personal diaries of Adolf Hitler generated a media frenzy. Magazines bid for the right to serialize them. Historians anticipated what revelations they would contain. Skeptics, however, insisted they had to be a fake, since Hitler had never been known to keep a diary. The skeptics turned out to be right. Less than two weeks after the initial announcement, forensics experts denounced the diaries as a "crude forgery." When all the dust settled, the diaries turned out to be one of the most expensive fakes in history. By some accounts, the debacle cost Stern as much as 19 million marks. More…
Sports Illustrated revealed that the New York Mets’s were hiring a new rookie pitcher, Sidd Finch (short for Siddhartha Finch), who could throw a ball with startling, pinpoint accuracy at 168 mph. Sidd Finch had never played baseball before but had mastered the “art of the pitch” in a Tibetan monastery under the guidance of the “great poet-saint Lama Milaraspa.“ Mets fans celebrated their teams good luck and flooded Sports Illustrated with requests for more information. They were crestfallen to learn that Sidd Finch was nothing but an April Fool's Day hoax who sprang from the imagination of author George Plimpton. More…
Following the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's financial situation was dire. So when the American magazine Forbes FYI reported that the Russian government had decided to sell the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin in an effort to raise foreign currency, the news seemed believable. Bidding for Lenin, it was said, would start at $15 million. Both ABC News and USA Today repeated the story without questioning it, and so were embarrassed when the editor of Forbes FYI revealed that it had been intended as a joke. Russian Interior Minister Viktor Barrannikov denounced the story as "an impudent lie." More…

Ghostwatch (Oct 1992)

On Halloween night, BBC TV aired a program called Ghostwatch, advertised as a live investigation into supernatural activity at a house in London. After a calm start, events quickly spun out of control when a malevolent spirit attacked the investigators, and then manifested back in the BBC studio. A terrified reporter warned that by airing the investigation on live TV they must have created a "massive seance," unleashing the spirit onto the whole of the UK. The program elicited a huge reaction. Many viewers phoned the police in panic. But there was no ghost on the loose. The program wasn't even live. It had been taped months before for Halloween. More…

Allegra Coleman (Nov 1996)

Esquire magazine's November 1996 cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. The feature article inside described the buzz building around her. Hollywood was intrigued. After Esquire ran the article, the magazine received calls from talent scouts, eager to get in touch with the new star. But as it turned out, Allegra didn't exist. Esquire had invented her as a spoof of the fawning puffery that many magazines shower on movie stars. The woman shown on the cover and in the photos inside was a (then) little-known actress called Ali Larter, who subsequently starred in (among other things) the NBC series Heroes. More…
Stephen Glass was a young writer at the New Republic who had a reputation for always getting the best scoops. In his most celebrated article, "Hack Heaven," he told the story of a fifteen-year-old hacker who broke into the computer system of a software corporation, Jukt Micronics, and then succeeded in extorting money, a job, a Miata, a trip to Disney World, and a lifetime subscription to Playboy from the company. But Jukt Micronics, as well as many of the other topics Glass wrote about, existed only in his own imagination. The New Republic fired him in May 1998 when it found out. More…
In 2006, on a Belgian TV station news broadcast, it was announced that Flanders, the Dutch-speaking half of the country, had seceded from the country. Thirty minutes into the news bulletin,only after the station''s phonelines were swamped, it was revealed to be a "War of the Worlds"-style hoax. More…
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