Fake News is Not New

Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.

...Or is there?

In 1897, Virginia O’Hanlon wrote this letter to the New York Sun newspaper.

Dear Editor.
I am eight years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

Before reviewing the Sun’s iconic response, let’s examine the newspaper’s history and ask why Virginia’s Papa seemed to trust it so much.

The first edition of the NY Sun came out in 1833. For a time, it was the most successful newspaper in America, even winning two Pultizer prizes before closing in 1950.

Paving the way to that success was a series of articles it ran in 1835 called GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES. Now known as the “Great Moon Hoax” the paper reported on the discovery of fantastic life forms on the Moon thanks to a "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle". The series described a Moon covered with trees, oceans, and beaches along with an odd variety of animals including a Vespertilio-homo which translated from Latin as bat-man.

After six installments, the series ended when the Sun reported that the telescope was destroyed in a fire caused by its powerful lens.

The GREAT ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES stories boosted the Sun’s circulation and established its success and credibility. Presses had to run ten hours a day to supply the demand for papers. Readers waited outside the Sun offices for copies. Far from suspecting a fake, rival papers congratulated the Sun and some even pirated the stories. Even after the hoax was accidentally exposed, the Sun never issued a retraction and did not lose circulation. Many years later, people like Virginia’s Papa were still convinced that, “if you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

Let’s return to Virginia’s letter and its specific request : Please tell me the truth.

What the Sun actually gave her was a classic “Red Herring”, something that misleads or distracts from the relevant issue at hand.

In his still celebrated reply, Francis Pharcellus Church, evades her direct question with a bombast of distractions better suited to marketing than the pursuit of truth.

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished...

The NY Sun achieved its initial success by promoting fantasy fiction as scientific fact. In Virginia’s case, it responded to reality-based inquiry with a sentimental cautionary fable. Fake News is not New and might best be called Make News. Why dig for Truth when Make News is a ready made Gold Mine?

So, to all the curious Virginias and Virgils out there, know that there are often many answers to a question. For the benefit of yourself and others, consider more than just a single source of authority when you’re searching for the truth.