CBS and the Bush Memos

Looks like while I was on vacation I missed the riveting spectacle of CBS News falling flat on its face and humiliating itself by falling for an obvious hoax involving President Bush's service (or lack of it) in the National Guard. A lot of ink has already been spilled over this (especially about the difference between Microsoft Word-produced fonts and typewriter-produced fonts), so I won't repeat the whole sorry episode. But I did notice that many commentators have pointed out that this is not the first time the media has fallen for a hoax. But the only previous example of a hoax that anyone seems to mention is the Hitler Diaries. So here are a few more gems that the media has fallen for (not including hoaxes perpetrated by journalists themselves):

1856: Railways and Revolvers in Georgia. The London Times sparked a transatlantic row when it published a letter detailing a series of bloody duels that had supposedly been fought with 'Monte Christo Pistols' on a Georgia train while passengers idly went about their business ignoring the bloodshed. The Times offered the letter as proof of the barbaric nature of American society, but the New York Times angrily denied that the duels had ever occurred. The Times realized it had been duped when it learned that 'Monte Christo Pistols' was Southern slang for bottles of champagne.
1924: The Zinoviev Letter. A few days before the British general election the Daily Mail published a letter supposedly written by Grigori Zinoviev, president of Comintern, that revealed secret links between the British Communist party and the Labour party. As a result, Labour was defeated in a landslide. Years later, the letter was revealed to be a phony.
1990: Whatever Happened to Buckwheat? 20/20 aired an interview with William Thomas, the actor who played Buckwheat in the 'Our Gang' comedies of the 1930s and '40s. 20/20 claimed that Thomas now lived in Tempe, Arizona where he worked as a grocery bagger. But the man 20/20 interviewed was actually an impostor named Bill English who had been claiming to be Buckwheat for the past 30 years. The week after it aired the segment, 20/20 sheepishly admitted its mistake. In the ensuing scandal, a producer was fired and 20/20 was sued for negligence by the son of the real William Thomas (who had worked as a film technician before dying in 1980 at the age of 49).
1992: President Bush Almost Dies. CNN almost reported that President Bush (the first one) had died, after they received a phone call from a man claiming to be the president's heart specialist on board Air Force One. The caller later turned out to be mentally unstable. Anchorman Don Harrison interrupted the regularly scheduled newscast to deliver the news of Bush's death but was halted at the last second by a producer yelling 'Stop! Stop!' in the background.
1992: Grungegate. The New York Times published an article about the Grunge subculture in which it included a lexicon of 'grunge speak' that included terms such as cob nobbler, lamestain, wack slacks, and swingin' on the flippity-flop. Later it learned that its source, Megan Jasper of Seattle-based Caroline records, had simply made the terms up as a joke.
1996: Diana Tape. The Sun claimed that it had a videotape of Princess Diana frolicking in her underwear with cavalry officer James Hewitt. But the tape was a phony created by an amateur filmmaker who shot it in a suburban house in London using two Diana lookalikes. The total cost to make the film was $1300. What the filmmaker received from The Sun was said to have been in the six figures.
1997: The JFK-Marilyn Letters. ABC had prepared a $2 million three-part documentary series about the relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe, alleging that not only had the two had a long-time affair, but that JFK was intending to establish a trustfund for Marilyn Monroe's mother in order to guarantee the actress's silence. ABC's proof: a series of love letters penned by JFK to Marilyn. But upon examination (and just in time to scuttle the series), ABC realized that the letters were produced on a typewriter that wasn't manufactured until after Kennedy's death. Plus, the letters contained zip codes, and zip codes only came into use in 1963.
2001: Lovenstein IQ Report. The Guardian reported that according to research conducted by the prestigious Lovenstein Institute of Scranton, Pennsylvania, President Bush had the lowest IQ of any president for the past fifty years. But the Lovenstein Institute didn't exist. The Guardian had fallen for a joke originally penned by the website.


Posted on Mon Sep 27, 2004


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