Benjamin Day was a pioneer of fake news. In 1835, his great moon hoax and other fantastic tales made his newspaper, the Sun, into a money-making powerhouse and lifted the art of fake news to new heights.
Day was born in Springfield, Mass. the son of a hatter. But his talents lay in publishing. As a young man Day moved to New York City and revolutionized the news business.
Newspapers of the day were charging six cents per copy. But new steam powered presses were driving down the costs of production. So Day passed the savings on to readers. He successfully launched the penny press in America, charging just one cent per paper.
He also revolutionized the news distribution methods of that day by importing from London a new system of distribution. News hawkers would buy papers from Day at a discount in 100-paper lots and sell them to customers on the street corners.
But his lowering of prices meant Day had to find other sources of revenue, and so he began aggressively courting advertisers. Advertisements had always been part of a newspaper’s revenue, but Day made it the chief source of his revenue. Of course advertisers demand eyeballs. So a slow news day in which single-issue sales slumped was a nightmare for an advertising-driven newspaper.
Given the dynamics of Day’s business model, the great moon hoax was perhaps inevitable. On August 25, 1835 the Sun began a series of six articles that described life on the moon. Richard Locke, a short, pock-marked editor at the Sun cooked up the idea. To give his stories the whiff of authenticity he claimed they were gleaned from the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
In his articles, Locke described the living conditions on the moon as seen through an enormous telescope constructed in South Africa. Sir John Herschel and Dr. Andrew Grant were the scientists who made the observations about life on the moon. Wildlife of all manner populated the moon, which contained lakes and fields. And all of it was overseen by a species of winged man-bat. The scientific inquiry was brought to an untimely halt when the great telescope the men used caused a fire in their observatory, bringing an end to their work.
The possibility of life on the moon was of great interest to ordinary people of the day, and a number of philosophers and pseudo-scientists rose to fame postulating about life elsewhere in the universe. And a number of writers, including Edgar Allen Poe, had concocted fantasies about what life might be like on the moon. But the Sun did them one better, publishing its account as a true scientific discovery.
The story dragged on for six days, complete with illustrations, and Day’s news hawkers had quite an edge. While competitors were flogging slow news from the dog days of August, the Sun was selling an illustrated look at the moon. The story was too good. Other newspapers began reprinting the story, and it made its way across the country.
Several weeks after publication, the great moon hoax was exposed. But the Sun stuck to its story, never apologizing and never correcting the hoax. The newspaper retained a considerable edge in circulation as its loyal readers returned for more fantastic news.
Day, meanwhile, sold the Sun to his brother-in-law three years later. The newspaper publisher took the proceeds of his sale and bought Brother Jonathan, the first illustrated weekly magazine in America. He published Brother Jonathan for more than 20 years.