Big lies, bigger audiences

Posted Aug. 24, 2010, at 6:42 p.m.

One hundred seventy-five years ago today, on Aug. 25, 1835, The New York Sun began a weeklong front page serial news story detailing “Great Astronomical Discoveries, Lately Made by Sir John Herschel.” The newspaper published reports claiming they were reprinted from the esteemed peer reviewed periodical, “The Edinburgh Journal of Science.”

While the Edinburgh Journal was real, not a word written in the articles was. Let’s face it, if you’re going to tell a lie, it’s good planning to implicate a credible source as supplying the information.

Even the reporter who allegedly wrote the articles was a fabrication. You know, like the Weekly World News’ own Ed Anger. If the story had appeared in a well-known tabloid people could have dismissed the phony science as easily as they do today’s WWN stories of “Bat Boy” or “Satan Escaping Through a Burning Oil Well” in Iraq. But the story was written in a credible newspaper. And subsequently, the five-day hoax became a world sensation.

The publishers of The New York Sun knew what they were doing. First they teased the story several days earlier using seductive language: “We have just learnt from an eminent publisher in this city [Edinburgh] that Sir John Herschel, at the Cape of Good Hope, has made some astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description, by means of an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

By the time they went to print with the discoveries from the imaginary newly developed telescope, detailing the never-heard-before lies, anchored to reality by citing a real Scottish Science Journal, the American public was hooked.

The long and the short of the 17,000-word news series was that life had been discovered on the moon because scientists had developed a new kind of telescope. Everything from plants and animals to humanoid beings were living on the lunar surface. They claimed that this explained why the naked eye perceived color changes on the moon’s exterior: Differing regions featured vegetation and habitation.

People ate this stuff up! In fact, according to historian Doris Falk, sales of the newspaper increased and remained inflated long after. And even when the truth was exposed a few weeks later, the paper never acknowledged the hoax or printed a retraction. Why would they? No one in their right mind — lacking scruples — would admit to a lie that was making them money.

Ironically, exactly 100 years after the great “moon hoax,” Benito Mussolini — the father of fascism — wrote in the London Sunday Express, “The masses have little time to think. And how incredible is the willingness of modern man to believe.” Mussolini continued to explain his rise to power by lying through credible sources. “Another weapon I discovered early was the power of the printed word to sway souls to me. The newspaper was soon my gun, my flag — a thing with a soul that could mirror my own.”

Mussolini and his contemporary Adolf Hitler had the hubris to admit that they were manipulating the truth for their own design and still people followed them.

Hitler echoed this strategy, writing: “The great masses of the people will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one.” Hitler also explained his winning combined technique of fabricating reality while targeting gullible small-minded people with those great big lies. “All propaganda has to be popular and has to accommodate itself to the comprehension of the least intelligent of those whom it seeks to reach.”

And that brings us to Fox News. I could save you some reading and me some typing if you would just stop watching that tabloid television. But because you persist, here’s one example of their lies:

Sean Hannity claimed to have “credible sources” confirming that State Department legal adviser Harold Koh said Sharia law would be permissible in U.S. courts. Hannity’s source, a random Internet blogger with absolutely no State Department credentials, has never produced one shred of evidence and no record exists of Koh saying any such thing; in fact he publicly opposes the notion.

Go to MediaMatters.org. Sign up for their e-mail updates so you’ll know when your news organization is lying to you. Moon hoax, fascist hoax, or religious hoax: Stop falling for them.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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