Review: Media Hoaxes by Fred Fedler

Media Hoaxes - Fred Fedler

When I taught mass communication history I used Fedler's book for humorous examples of reporter behavior and media hoaxes. So this full read-through was the first time I let myself read the whole book for fun, without a deadline. (It's such a different experience to read a book that way, when you have time to enjoy it.)

Fedler's a bit frustrating to read at times because of the way he chooses to describe some of the hoaxes. The Poe chapter is the best example of this - Fedler retells the entire story, making you wish you could just stop, go read the actual Poe story, then read Fedler's summing up of the response to its publication. But that's really the only downside, because the other articles Fedler describes aren't ones you could easily find in a library. Many of the end notes cite newspapers and dates that would be hard to track down without a lot of time. And that the book itself is carefully footnoted is also wonderful - because it does make it a great resource for future researchers.

Another thing that's useful - it's not written in an academic style. While I wouldn't say it's excellent nonfiction writing, I would happily assign it to 5th and 6th graders. (Or younger, depending on reading ability.) And it's just the kind of book that's useful to teach at a younger age because being able to properly critique media, ponder what's true and false, and realizing what a hoax is - well, it's all vital for learning how to use and rate media.

I became so enthralled with the idea of media hoaxes and finding some of them available to read online (for free, which I always love) that I began this ridiculously long list:
Media Hoaxes and Famous Satires: Because I Do Enjoy Making Reading Lists (and Also Somehow Poe is to Blame)
Poe is to blame because I'd just finished a book of his detective stories and then was reading this and bam, long Poe chapter. Pesky author, fine - I will read your newspaper articles/stories! (Also that reading list is still a work in progress. I have many more links to add to it. Eventually I'll move it over here when finished and add it to my Booklikes sidebar.)

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Contents:
I. America's Greatest Hoaxers: Franklin, Poe, Twain, and De Quille
1. English Traditions: Ben Franklin's Satire and Hoaxes
2. To the Moon in a Balloon" Poe's Horrifying Hoaxes
3. American Humor: Mark Twain and Dan De Quille

II. Journalism's Most Successful Hoaxes
4. Fooling the Masses: Astronomer Sees the Moon's "Bat-men"
5. Reinforcing a Stereotype: Railways and Revolvers in Georgia
6. Helping the Public? Wild Animals Escape in New York
7. Is the Press Too Powerful? Chicago's Awful Theater Fire
8. Improved and Updated: The Hoax That Caused a War
9. An Enduring Hoax: H. L. Mencken's Fraudulent History of the White House Bathtub
10. The End of an Era: New York's Sin Ship

III. Common Themes
11. Chicago's Hoaxes: Beating (and Embarrassing) Your Rivals
12. New England's Gentler Humor (and New York's)
13. Radio and TV Hoaxes: Dolls, Monsters, and Martians
14. April Fools' Hoaxes: Pelicans, Sharks, and Baseball
15. Hoaxing the Hoaxers: Fooling the Media for Fun and Publicity

Epilogue: A Change in Ethics: Firing the Guilty

Appendix: Ben Franklin's Parable against Persecution

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A Few Interesting Quotes:


p xix:

"...During the 1860s, for example, about four hundred daily newspapers were published in the United States. By 1900, the number had jumped to two thousand. Cities such as Philadelphia and New York had more than a dozen English-language dailies. As recently as 1933, Washington DC, had five. Only one, the Washington Post, has survived.

...Newspaper jobs were also much different" less respectable, but more adventuresome and carefree. They were low-level, white-collar jobs that attracted the upwardly mobile - immigrants, their children, and the youths raised on farms and in small towns. Newspaper jobs rarely attracted gentlemen. The upper classes thought of newspaper people as drifters and drunkards who led exciting lives but pried into other people's private affairs.

Few of the journalists were well educated. Many had not graduated from high school, and some believed that it was a disadvantage to have graduated from college. Journalists who had attended college sometimes tried to hide that fact "as though it was a stretch in prison." An editor at the Chicago Tribune also discouraged marriage, fearing it would interfere with his staff's work. If a reporter wanted to get married, the editor might threaten to cut the reporter's salary, or even to fire him."




p 147 - reporters regularly had close contact with police and also were known to kidnap witnesses of crimes or even the accused:

 

"The suspect in another murder was captured by police in Wisconsin. A squad from Hearst's Examiner sped to the town. Posing as Chicago policemen, they flashed fake badges and brought the suspect back to a Chicago hotel. The suspect gave the reporters a detailed statement, and the police and other journalists read it in the Examiner. So their story would remain exclusive, the reporters waited a day or two before returning their prisoner to the Chicago police."

 

However the book also notes that many of the tales of the Chicago press of the 1900 that were handed down were retold and exaggerated. So it's hard to say that all of the incidents are 100% accurate.

 

p. 198: "We can't be responsible for people if they are attacked. Besides, anyone foolish enough to believe all this deserves to be eaten."

--from a "spokesman for the National Biological Foundation" from a story in the Herald-News (Roscommon, Michigan) reporting on scientists' experiment of releasing freshwater sharks into three northern Michigan lakes to see if they would breed.

The key bit of info here? The date of publication: April 1, 1981.

And yes, people did believe this story. Even though the final sentence is a huge hint: "Doherty also noted that April 1 is a foolish time to be telling fishy stories."