Now that we know we’ve all been hoodwinked into believing six-year old Falcon Heene might have been in the runaway helium balloon, it is worth noting that this wasn’t the only hoax involving a balloon in which the media helped perpetuate.
On April 13, 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote an article in The New York Sun, chronicling how Monck Mason, leaving England for Paris drifted off course and had traveled across the Atlantic in three days, landing safely on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston South Carolina, while riding an ``egg-shaped gas-filled balloon’’, named the Victoria.
The story caused such a stir that an excited mob quickly gathered outside of the editorial offices of the Sun, hoping to land a copy of the historic edition. Not until two days later did the New York daily publish a correction, noting the story was pure fiction. The published correction read: ``We are inclined to believe the intelligence is erroneous.’’
Not only was the story untrue, but a balloon would never cross the Atlantic until 1978, when the Double Eagle II successfully landed in Misreay near Paris, 137 hours after departing Presque Isle, Maine. The first aircraft to fly over the Atlantic was pulled off by a U.S. Navy seaplane in 1919.
31 years later, readers of the Chicago Times picked up the February 13, 1875 edition only to met with the alarming headline: ``BURNED ALIVE!’’, reporting on the gruesome accounts of how a fire engulfed a neighborhood Chicago theater, which resulted in ``blackened corpses’’ covered with the grime of the conflagration being ``trampled to death’’ The paper even went so far to list names of casualties by initials (customary at the time), causing some to believe they had just lost loved ones in the raging inferno. Readers were led to believe as many as 200 patrons had died.
Not until much further down in the story did the Times inform readers no one actually died; in fact, there was no fire at all; they fictionalized the account only to enlighten readers, as a public service, to the fire hazards prevalent in Chicago theaters.
The Times chief rival, the Chicago Tribune went to work on the Times’ unconscionable hoax with a sharp rebuke for causing such unnecessary commotion. The Tribune then reported a woman collapsed and died after reading the Times false account of the fire. Similar to the Times, the woman’s death, the Tribune reported later in the story, didn’t really happen; it was merely a hoax
In the 20th century, there were other hoaxes in which the media played a central role, but not nearly as dramatic.
On June 7, 1976, New York Magazine splashed with a cover story: "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night" by Nik Cohn, who recounted the tales of the disco scene in Brooklyn, New York. The author prefaced the article by informing readers while the names in the article had changed, all the events were true. The cover story was such a hit; it spawned a motion picture "Saturday Night Fever" starring John Travolta, a motion picture which revolutionized a new dance craze: disco.
It was only years later that Mr. Cohn would admit the magazine’s central character was merely a composite based on youths he knew in London at the time.
On September 28, 1980, Washington Post published a chilling account of an eight-year old heroin addict named ``Jimmy’’ living in a furnished room in Southeast Washington, written by Janet Cooke.
Cooke’s expose earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. But after a storm of heavy questioning from an army of skeptics over the details of the story, Cooke acknowledged there was no such boy ``Jimmy’’; she made up the story, including fabricating credentials on her resume. Embarrassed, the Washington Post returned the Pulitzer.
Most recently, The New York Times (in 2003) was the subject of some embarrassment of their own, when Jayson Blair pulled off a whole series of hoaxes when fraud was found in at least 36 of his published articles. Mr. Blair was also found to have falsified expense reports, and fictionalized an interview with the father of Jessica Lynch, a POW rescued during the second Gulf War in 2003.
The Times’ executive editor at the time, Howell Raines, praised Mr. Blair for his great ``shoe-leather reporting’’ for his stories on the snipers who were terrorizing Washington D.C., stories which were later found to be filled with manufactured details.
During a 3 ½ year period, The Times had published 50 corrections in which Blair had a byline.
Blair resigned from the Times in May, 2003.
So during the next few days as news media begins to unravel the bizarre details of Richard Heene and his ``balloon hoax'', it should be remembered the media itself has been the center of its own hoaxes, whether intentionally or through no fault of their own.