“Fake News” — meaning the kind that’s simply made up by a creative thinker sitting at a keyboard and pondering what will drive the most clicks — is having a moment just now.
Mostly that’s down to a combination of some very enterprising teenagers in Macedonia who have figured out how to make a ton of money with Google AdSense, and a gaggle of political leaders who use the term to refer to news outlets they don’t like.
But Fake News has a long tradition in the world of news reporting, going back to the famous “Bat People on the Moon” hoax perpetrated by the New York Sun in 1835, and even earlier.
One of the first outbreaks of Fake News in Oregon actually had a lot in common with the Great Moon Hoax. It happened in the late 1890s — and it involved UFOs (although, this being the 19th century, they called them “airships”).
It all started, as so many “out-of-this-world” things seem to do, in California. On the night of Nov. 17, 1896, hundreds of Sacramento residents reported seeing an oblong airship-thing making its way across the sky in the middle of the night, propelled by four guys pedaling bicycles that were hooked to large fans. Some of the residents claimed they heard voices and music coming from the thing.
Although this certainly qualified as an unidentified flying object, it wasn’t exactly a ringer for a flying saucer of the type famously seen by McMinnville residents 50 years later. It sounded a lot more along the lines of something Edgar Rice Burroughs would put in one of his “John Carter of Mars” books — or maybe something Victor Appleton would dream up for a Tom Swift title.
And, in fact, that’s what most of the California newspapers thought was surely going on — Some Tom Swift-type had invented a fabulous flying machine, and was testing it out under cover of darkness.
This, of course, was not a trend that the newspapers of the 1890s were about to ignore — especially in California, where the famously Machiavellian William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner was headquartered. Hearst’s handling of the opportunity was interesting, though possibly because his paper’s greatest rival, the San Francisco Call, had first “broken” the story. In the Examiner, he was harshly critical, calling it “fake journalism” and writing “It has been manifest for weeks that the whole airship story is pure myth.” But in his bigger papers on the East Coast — including the one that made his fortune, the New York Journal — the stories were played as true and verified.
Other California newspapers, though, were not so skeptical. They immediately got busy interviewing citizens (or, perhaps, making up interviews with imaginary citizens) who claimed to have seen the UFOs.
One, supposedly a ranch foreman, was puzzled while out riding the range by the sound of a group of people happily singing a song. Then he looked up in the sky, and wow, there was a bandstand floating through the air!
Another claimed the inventor of the fabulous flyer had invited him aboard and demonstrated the operation of his anti-gravity generator, proudly showing how he could direct a four-ton piece of field artillery (apparently a 37-mm Hotchkiss five-barrel autocannon). “I suspend all gravitation by placing a small wire around the object,” he said. “We have only to pour the cartridges into the hopper and press a button and it fires 53,000 times per minute.”
At least one article claimed that the UFOs were from Mars — a little ahead of its time, that one — and another claimed that one of the candidates for governor of Nevada was hiding a UFO in his house.
But almost all of this sturm und drang was happening in California. Newspapers in Oregon were almost uniformly skeptical, sometimes caustically so. The great sibling-rivalry relationship between California and Oregon was already in full bloom in the 1890s, and as the smaller of the two states, Oregon was always a bit more on edge.
“It reminds one of the old saying the California has the largest trees, smallest matches, and damnedest liars of any place on Earth,” remarked the Eugene Register.
“California has proved the richest American soil for propagation of the ‘fake’ — a noxious weed introduced into the country within the present generation by what is called modern journalism,” sneered the Portland Morning Oregonian, almost certainly intending this as a swing at Hearst.
The few sightings of strange lights in the sky that were reported in Oregon newspapers tended to get minimized or even scoffed at. One in particular came to the Portland Evening Telegram from an ex-employee who had gone to work for one of the California newspapers, and sent back a letter with a fanciful account of the UFO. The Telegram’s headline read, “YOU MAY NOT BELIEVE THIS: Ex-Portlander Writes About the Airship.”
“A letter received here from an ex-Portlander, now engaged on one of the San Francisco newspapers, vouches most seriously for the existence of the California airship, conspicuously advertised by the San Francisco press, but which elsewhere is being stigmatized as a fake.”
It’s hard not to picture that reporter sniggering while writing this. No one was going to fail to put the pieces together.
The San Francisco papers said UFOs were real, this guy had gone to work for one, now he said UFOs were real. What a coinkydink!
The ex-Portlander went on to assure his reader that he’d met the inventor and ridden from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the airship, flying 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 10 miles (about 53,000 feet) thanks to a handy cabin pressurization system also invented by his host. But, after that introduction, it hardly mattered what he claimed.
The UFO outbreak was surprisingly short-lived. It generated a plethora of surprisingly specific, but widely divergent, stories of locals interacting with UFOs and their occupants, and it stayed pretty solidly localized to Northern California and its immediate environs.
Which is why it’s just a little surprising that the official explanation for the outbreak is usually given as “a classic case of mass hysteria.” The newspapers in Oregon didn’t give it so much credit. Almost every single one of them used a much more modern term for it — “Fake news.”
Were they right? Were the California papers just making up stories to sell papers? We’ll probably never really know. But it does seem to fit the evidence as well as, or maybe better than, “mass hysteria” does.
(Sources: Bartholomew, Robert E. “From Airships to Flying Saucers: Oregon’s Place in the Evolution of UFO Lore,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, v.101 n.2)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.