Any self-respecting news organization employs teams of editors and fact-checkers to make sure that when a story goes to press, everything is as correct as possible. Unfortunately, in the rush to report on breaking news as soon as possible, certain details can often be overlooked or confused—details like whether or not the president is actually dead.
And then other times, a story sounds so good that editors soft-pedal or entirely bypass the fact-checking stage, a decision that more often than not comes back to bite them on the ass. Here are ten good reasons not to believe everything you read.
DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN
Really, could we start this article with anything else? Probably the most well-known headline screwup in newspaper history, “Dewey Defeats Truman” was the result of the Chicago Tribune’s deep hostility to Truman (referred to in one editorial as a “nincompoop”) and determination to be the first paper anywhere to call the election. Relying on their veteran political correspondent Arthur Sears Henning, who had correctly called four out of the last five national elections, the Tribune looked at early returns, opinion polls, and “conventional wisdom” and decided that their first edition would go to press with Dewey’s inevitable victory on the banner. Except they were wrong. In the years since, many people have incorrectly called an election ahead of time, but none with the sort of amusing confidence that the Tribune did.
THE HITLER DIARIES
West German magazine Stern was pretty sure they had the scoop of the decade in their hands: a series of handwritten documents purporting to cover the years from 1932 to 1945 from Hitler’s perspective, recovered from a plane crash and smuggled out of East Germany by journalist Gerd Heidemann and a mysterious “Dr. Fischer.” To protect their secret, Stern kept the diaries under lock and key, allowing only a handful of historians and handwriting analysts to review them.
After months of collecting documents and over nine million marks in payment to Heidemann’s secret source, the magazine finally went public in April 1983, at which point everything immediately went wrong. The two major historians who had previously approved the work were now backpedaling, the diaries’ content appeared to be little more than transcriptions of Hitler’s speeches, and when the German Federal Archives was finally allowed to test the documents they were found to be written in modern ink on modern paper. Stern had no ready explanation for how it had never found it odd that the “diaries” had survived a plane wreck and fifty years of dubious storage conditions, and the magazine was nearly ruined as a result.
CNN AND FOX BOTH BOTCH THE OBAMACARE RULING
In an example of how up-to-the-second reporting can sometimes get things wrong, both CNN and Fox News misinterpreted the opinion of Chief Justice John Roberts (that the “individual mandate” of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional) as being the ruling of the Supreme Court itself.
Both networks realized the truth within minutes, but with the modern compulsion of all news networks to share breaking news online via social media, there were thousands of different instances of both companies being embarrassingly, publicly wrong. Again, all it would’ve taken in order to not humiliate themselves in front of the entire country was to double-check Roberts’ statement, showing that when it comes to journalism, speed kills credibility.
“JIMMY’S WORLD” (OF B.S.)
Janet Cooke had been working for the Washington Post for less than a year when she turned in a gripping, tear-jerking profile of an eight-year-old boy named Jimmy and his life in the D.C. ghetto. Readers were so moved that they wrote in by the hundreds asking if there was some way they could help Jimmy, and mayor Marion Barry even organized a special task force just to try and track down the homeless child.
However, Cooke responded by first saying that she couldn’t endanger her sources and then that she had gotten Jimmy into a shelter but then OOPS he died, so, sorry about that everyone. Naturally this excuse raised a few eyebrows, but the Post defended her all the way to submitting Cooke’s story for a Pulitzer, which she won. Ironically, winning the Pulitzer was her downfall—the biographical notes accompanying her award came to the attention of her former employers at the Toledo Blade, who noticed that she had inflated her academic achievements and passed that information on to the WP editors. Upon being confronted with her earlier lies, Cooke broke down and revealed her most recent one—there was no Jimmy and never had been.
JFK’S BIG DALLAS SPEECH
As a courtesy to newspapers (or as a way of controlling what they say, take your pick), politicians often release advance copies of speeches to reporters, allowing them to analyze and report on the major features of a public appearance before it actually happens and enabling papers to print an account of the speech as soon as possible.
To be fair, most of the politicians who do this don’t expect to be shot to death in the interim between releasing the advance copy and delivering the speech, so when the Associated Press sent out their article on Kennedy’s planned presentation at the Dallas Trade Mart they had every reason to believe that he would actually be alive to talk about how his opponents confused rhetoric with reality. Many newspapers with afternoon editions ran the story before getting word of the assassination, and a few evening editions actually published the article with the editorial footnote that 1) the speech never happened and 2) the president was now dead.
THE TRAGIC DEATH OF ABBA
This one is just bizarre. Apparently, out of nowhere, German radio and newspapers started claiming that nearly everyone in the cloyingly poppy Swedish disco group ABBA had died in a horrific plane crash, and that sole survivor Anni-Frid Lyngstad was horribly disfigured and would never be able to sing again.
This completely unfounded rumor swept Europe for two or three days before somebody thought to pick up the phone and actually call ABBA to see if they were dead. As it turned out they were perfectly fine and hadn’t even been on an airplane recently (although later Anni revealed that ABBA’s members typically flew on separate planes to reduce the chances of a band-destroying aerial disaster). The strangest part of this completely baseless rumor is that it was never completely established where it even started—the stories of ABBA’s violent fiery death seemed to have popped up fully-formed on a number of German papers.
THE TRUTH VS. THE REAL TRUTH
British tabloids like The Sun are infamous for smears, innuendo, and half-truths, but in at least one instance they felt the need to be painfully honest. In 1989, Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield suffered the worst soccer stadium accident in British history after 96 fans were killed and 766 were injured in a “crush” that was in part a result of poor decisions by the South Yorkshire Police Department.
But when The Sun went looking for answers, they accepted the statements of the police as gospel truth—statements that portrayed Liverpudlian fans as a sort of barbarian horde, violently preventing cops and aid workers from saving lives and robbing corpses left and right. After more than two decades of investigation into the Hillsborough disaster, it became clear that the police had been constantly and consistently lying about their role in the affair, inventing horror stories that placed the blame on rowdy fans instead of incompetent officers, and to its credit The Sun made a public apology on its front page, saying “The role of a newspaper is to uncover injustice. To forensically examine the claims made by those who are in positions of power. In the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy we failed.”
DATELINE NBC AND THE CASE OF THE EXPLODING TRUCK
In a November 1992 news feature, NBC’s popular investigative journalism show "Dateline" aired a piece on a new line of General Motors pickup trucks and their supposedly unsafe fuel tanks entitled “Waiting To Explode.” Viewers actually didn’t have to wait long at all for an explosion, as they were soon treated to footage of a low-speed collision between an anonymous station wagon and a GM truck that immediately erupted into flames.
Unfortunately, "Dateline" failed to mention that 1) they had staged the collision with remote devices and 2) they had rigged the pickup’s fuel tank with a brace of model rocket engines to ensure a sufficiently dramatic fireball. Sharp-eyed GM lawyers noted that the truck began belching flame at least six frames before the actual impact, and the legal action (combined with a GM advertising boycott) forced the president of NBC News to resign in disgrace.
THE TITANIC IS TOTALLY OK GUYS, NO WORRIES
The first news anybody received about the Titanic disaster was a short, vague wire report relayed by the AP to the effect that the great ship had hit an iceberg and had radioed Newfoundland for assistance. For a long period, that was the ONLY news available that was backed up by any sort of fact, and newspaper editors across the country were faced with a breaking news item that they could sum up in two sentences.
In the age of Twitter where many people expect news to break in tiny little pieces, this wouldn’t have been a problem at all (you could even fit the original AP report into 140 characters) but in a time where people wanted their newspapers to provide them with long, compelling stories regardless of how many facts they had to report, the incident prompted writers everywhere to invent details out of whole cloth. The Christian Science Monitor even managed to invent a rescue ship that had taken the Titanic under tow and evacuated its passengers, apparently based on the bluff statements of the International Mercantile Marine, who repeated the claim that the giant ship was “unsinkable” and even if it was heavily damaged would still be safely afloat.
New York Times editor Van Anda was the only man smart enough to put together the facts of the situation—the Titanic radioed in to report striking an iceberg and then went completely silent for hours—and gambled everything on writing that the ship had sunk. His talent for second-guessing industry spokesmen and working with the available facts meant that the NYT was the only newspaper not to embarrass itself with a faulty report that day.
Next: The Mandatory Facts Machine
THE DISCOVERY OF SAN SERIFFE
This last one is more of a prank than a fail, but still didn't really play out the way it was intended. The Guardian is one of Britain’s biggest and most respected newspapers, despite an occasional habit of making bizarre typos including at least one misspelling of their own name as “The Grauniad.” At any rate, their April Fool's prank of 1977 was so huge and detailed that it fooled thousands of readers.
The Guardian writers and editors published a giant article on the history, geography, and politics of the entirely fictional nation of San Seriffe, a semicolon-shaped island whose cities, leaders, and landmarks were all obscure typographical and editorial puns referring to fonts, layout conventions, and oddly-named printing characters (such as the annual foot race between the native town of Em and the German immigrant village of Ems known as the “Two-Em Dash”).
Despite a ridiculously implausible (and hilarious) history, including the “fact” that San Seriffe drifted randomly around the ocean and was seen as far north as the Bering Sea, The Guardian’s phones were ringing off the hook with requests for more information about vacationing on the idyllic typographical paradise. The fictional country became a running inside joke among staff and readers, and even today it is possible to register on The Guardian website as being a native of San Seriffe.