Hoaxes - Media

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff
The Hoax Files: The Truth Isn't Out There
Media Myths

by Beth Rowen

War of the Worlds

Known for his flair for the dramatic, Orson Welles, with members of his Mercury Theatre Company, incited mass hysteria and earned themselves national fame on October 30, 1938, when they performed an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds on their CBS radio show. The players used a news-broadcast format and announced that visitors from Mars had invaded New Jersey. Thousands of panicked New Jersey citizens fainted, fled their homes, and overflowed telephone lines when they heard Welles say, "Good heavens, something's wiggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. I can see the thing's body now. It's large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather." Welles had reportedly expected a frenzied reaction, though he said, "the size of it was flabbergasting."

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Looks Aren't Everything

Whoever said one has to be young and beautiful to make it in Hollywood never met Riley Weston, who, as it turns out, only looks young. In 1998, the 32-year-old screenwriter and actress, whose real name is Kimberlee Kramer, passed herself off as a 19 year old and landed a writing and acting gig on the WB's teen hit Felicity. (Only in Tinseltown is 32 considered over-the-hill.) Imagine TV, which produces the show, said in a statement that they hired Weston for her "writing talent and the unique perspective" her age would bring to the show.

It was Weston's life experience that led to her metamorphosis. A struggling actress relegated to bit parts for almost 10 years, Weston updated her résumé by deleting acting credits that would date her and reinvented herself, with a new name, as a teenager. Her ploy worked. Entertainment Weekly cited her as one of entertainment's most creative forces on its 1998 “It List.” She left the show after securing a $500,000 development deal with Touchstone, a division of Disney.

Quiz Show Catastrophe

It has taken more than 40 years, but television and its viewers have proven ready and eager to put their trust back into prime-time game shows. Indeed, the past season has witnessed four big-money quiz show debut on network television. But the wounds from the 1950s scandal run deep, and the return of the evening game show has inevitably recalled the debacle that ultimately sparked the revamping of the entire television industry.

Television's first prime-time quiz show, The $64,000 Question, debuted in 1955 to phenomenal ratings. The show inspired imitations, including 1956's Twenty-One, in which two contestants, seated in isolation booths, were given a category and then selected the level of difficulty of the questions, which were worth from one to eleven points. The first person to score 21 points won. The game proved a fierce challenge, and many players were stumped, leaving NBC with a dull show and a ratings dud. The producer, Dan Enright, decided to spruce things up by coaching contestants. It worked. Twenty-One shot up in the ratings, trumping the other quiz shows.

The show was ultimately brought down in 1957 when City College of New York graduate student Herbert Stempel revealed that the show was rigged. Not only did rival Charles Van Doren, an attractive Columbia University English instructor, receive the answers, but he was also coached on making the appropriate facial expressions as he ostensibly struggled for an answer or sighed with relief after conquering a tough question. Van Doren won $129,000 and became a star. He signed a $50,000 contract with NBC to appear on the Today show.

While Twenty-One suffered the most public condemnation, congressional hearings in 1959 revealed that cheating, coddling, and tampering were industry norms. President Dwight Eisenhower said the ruse “was a terrible thing to do to the American public.” The notorious scandal was made into a movie, 1994's Quiz Show, which starred John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, and Rob Morrow.

Sun-sational Story

In 1835, the New York Sun proclaimed that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had “by means of a telescope of vast dimensions and an entirely new principle” made a series of outlandish discoveries, including planets in other solar systems, a “new theory of cometary phenomena,” and life on the moon. The lengthy article chronicled Herschel and his team's observations of the moon, in which they spotted a poppy-like red flower, which they said was “the first organic production of nature, in a foreign world, ever revealed to the eyes of men.” The Sun also reported that Herschel found lunar forests, seas, “lilac-hued quartz pyramids,” bison, blue unicorns, biped beavers, and most notably, winged beings that resembled humans, which he dubbed “man-bat.” The edition flew off the newsstands, and the paper sold copies of the article to thousands of believers before the sham was exposed. The writer is widely believed to be Sun staffer Richard Adams Locke.

Sun-sational Story, Part 2

In 1996, England's Sun newspaper, known for its propensity to publish the sensational, ran photos of Princess Diana frolicking in a garden with her former lover, James Hewitt—or so the paper said. The pictures, which were reproduced from a grainy video, were actually of look-alike actors who were acting in a comedy-show pilot.

The Sun, part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire, was duped into believing that the video was shot by "secret service snoopers." The paper made a front-page apology, and editor Stuart Higgins said the incident was "one of the most elaborate hoaxes of the decade."

Try Using Your Noodle

On April 1, 1957, Panorama, a news program on the British Broadcasting Company, broadcast a segment about the spaghetti crop in Switzerland. In a perfect deadpan, announcer Richard Dimbleby reported on how the crop was larger than usual, due to a mild winter and the absence of the spaghetti weevil. During the report, video footage of the spaghetti harvest was shown, with families picking strands of spaghetti off of trees and placing them into baskets. At the end, the workers were seen gathering around a table to enjoy their fresh-picked homegrown spaghetti.

After the show, the BBC got hundreds of phone calls from people wanting to know more about spaghetti trees and how they might grow one. Operators advised them to "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best."

This was one of the first April Fools' jokes ever to air on television.

On the Clock

The BBC has kept up a tradition of April Foolery ever since. In 1980, it announced that the clock faces on Big Ben -- a London landmark in the clock tower of Westminister Palace -- would be replaced with digital displays, to keep up with modern technology. They were flooded with calls of protest.

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