August was the 175th anniversary of the New York Sun’s Great Moon Hoax, when Richard Adams Locke created a sensation by writing a series of satirical articles, taken seriously by the public, about life on the moon. Matthew Goodman, author of The Sun and the Moon, says this story marked a paradigmatic shift in the way Americans perceived newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you shocked, shocked about journalists inventing stories to prove a point? The practice goes way back. An example of particular significance to the newspaper industry occurred at the end of another very hot summer in 1835 when a New York tabloid published a series of articles under the headline “Great Astronomical Discoveries about an Astronomer who Glimpsed Life Most Fantastical on the Moon.” It was widely believed. This most successful hoax in American journalism was penned by British expat Richard Adams Locke, editor of The New York Sun. The brainchild of the publisher Benjamin Day, The Sun was the earliest of the so-called penny papers, papers that pitched themselves to a working-class audience who plucked from the newsstands stories of crime and corruption, news about their communities, sports and scandal. Before the penny papers, daily papers cost six cents and were directed towards well-heeled subscribers who cared more about world markets than local affairs. The penny papers democratized the news. But this also was an era of scoundrels and hucksters and provocateurs, like Sun editor Richard Adams Locke, who wrote his saga of moon creatures as a satire, never imagining it would make The Sun the Earth’s most successful paper.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: The conventional wisdom among astronomers of the time was that the moon was in fact inhabited, and not just the moon but all the planets, all the stars, comets, even the sun, because God would not have created these celestial bodies without also creating intelligent beings there to appreciate them. He believed that religion had no place in scientific inquiry. And so he decided to write this series of stories that pretended to discover crazy beings on the moon. But what he hadn't anticipated was that the public had been so schooled in the theories of these religious astronomers that when the stories were published, they simply believed them. But in point of fact, they were intended as a satire of the religious astronomers of the day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Intended as a satire by Richard Adams Locke but not necessarily by The New York Sun -
MATTHEW GOODMAN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which never disowned its own hoax. And we're talking about in the paper, a series of reports -
MATTHEW GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - of unicorns, beavers that walked on their hind legs -
MATTHEW GOODMAN: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - four-foot-tall man-bats.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: The lunar man-bats. They were the crowning touch of the series – the Vespertilio-homo, they were supposed to have been dubbed by the astronomers, that talked and flew and built temples and fornicated in public, according to The Sun, which caused a great sensation. But Richard Adams Locke was the editor of The Sun. He wasn't the publisher of The Sun. The publisher of The Sun, Benjamin Day, was quite pleased to have this story believed. And then The Sun, of course, discovered that they could make even more money by putting out commodities related to the series, so they published the series as a pamphlet and sold that on the street. They put out a lithograph of the supposed landscape of the moon, with the unicorns and the man-bats. So The Sun ended up making tens of thousands of dollars as a result of this hoax.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And never itself exposed it.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: It was eventually revealed by another newspaper that Locke was indeed the author of the hoax. Locke, one drunken evening, admitted to a colleague on a rival paper that he was, in fact, the author of the hoax. But The Sun themselves never did own up to hoaxing the public. And the public never turned away from The Sun [BROOKE LAUGHS] in the aftermath of this. You know, their circulation numbers never went back down. People just kind of tipped their hat to the hoaxer and said, job well done, and next time we won't be quite so gullible. And in the wake of this hoax, more penny papers began to be published once they saw how successful penny papers could be. And within the next ten years or so, you saw hundreds of penny papers developing throughout the United States. This was really the moment, the late 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, when America became for the first time a nation of newspaper readers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you experiencing a sense of déjà vu, this movement -
MATTHEW GOODMAN: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - launched by the penny papers, this fight between various versions of reality, a de-emphasis -
MATTHEW GOODMAN: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - on what may be factually true?
MATTHEW GOODMAN: Well, that’s exactly right. There is in some way an analogy to what is going on today with the seeming death of old-line print journalism being replaced by the Internet. The Internet is at least as much a transmitter of hoaxes as it is a potential debunker of them. You know, the fact that on the eve of the election, 25 percent of the electorate of the state of Texas believed that President Obama is a Muslim is a hoax.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think we've returned to a period perhaps when we just don't care.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: The success of these hoaxes is that they tend to confirm what people would like to believe anyway. People chose to believe that there were inhabitants on the moon because it made them believe that there was, in fact, this idea of a benevolent God who was creating intelligent beings everywhere, and we were not alone in the universe. I think today, people are prone to want to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim because of preexisting ideas that they have, and I think that the Internet is simply just as good a means of helping people to confirm their prejudices as any that we've had in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: Oh, thank you very much, Brooke. I appreciate it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matthew Goodman is author of The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth- Century New York.