Thursday, May 2, 2013

November Fools' Day

There's a reason I don't participate in April Fools' Day. I brought it up last year. It's because I'm trying to be trusted. That's a core task of a journalist, to get people to trust you. If you don't have trust, you have nothing. Participating in April Fools' Day just undermines that trust. 'Hey, everyone, you really shouldn't have trusted me yesterday; it was April Fools' Day.' Okay, just today? Are there other days when I shouldn't trust you too?

The saving grace, of course, is that by now people know April Fools' is coming, so they know to be on guard. But what about when the media fools them and it's not April Fools' Day? Perhaps, say, November?

On November 9, 1874, a lengthy piece ran on the front page of the New York Herald, claiming that animals had broken loose from the Central Park Zoo and had begun rampaging throughout New York. The full text of the article can be seen here.

The headline ran 13 levels deep (headlines were multilevel back in those days). 49 were reported dead in the opening paragraph with 200 injured, with the death toll expected to rise. A proclamation from the mayor's office was reported asking people to remain indoors until the National Guard had cleared the town of the 12 animals still at large. After explaining the origin of the escape- a visitor poking a rhinoceros with his cane and the rhino busting out of the cage to get at him, followed by the rhino going around to the other cages to free other animals- the author of the article, Joseph Clarke (assigned the task by editor Thomas Connery) went on to give an eyewitness account of people being trampled, gored, slammed against cage walls, torn to pieces and otherwise horribly mutilated by rampaging animals. He told of some of the animals fighting each other. He told of a tiger charging at him. He told of how many of them were being brought down by anyone who had a big enough gun on hand. On and on he went, complete with a partial list of the names of the dead.

Until the very last paragraph. After over 10,000 words recounting the horrors of the day- MS Word has everything prior to the last paragraph clocking in at 10,158- the reader would see the following:

Of course the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true. Not a single act or incident described has taken place. It is a huge hoax, a wild romance, or whatever other epithet of utter untrustworthiness our readers may choose to apply to it. It is simply a fancy picture which crowded upon the mind of the writer a few days ago while he was gazing through the iron bars of the cages of the wild animals in the menagerie at Central Park. Yet as each of its horrid but perfectly natural sequences impressed themselves upon his mind, the question presented itself, How is New York prepared to meet such a catastrophe? How easily could it occur any day of the week? How much, let the citizens ponder, depends upon the indiscretion of even one of the keepers? A little oversight, a trifling imprudence might lead to the actual happening of all, and even worse than has been pictured. From causes quite as insignificant the greatest calamities of history have sprung. Horror, devastation and widespread slaughter of human beings have had small mishaps for parent time and again.

That's right. 10,000 words of death, destruction and horror were followed by a 'never mind' and a warning to maybe consider upgrading the zoo a bit to keep this kind of thing from happening.

If anyone made it all the way through the article to read that part, history does not record their name. In fact, odds are many people never got past the 13-level headline. Which is par for the course. That's why in journalism classes, you're generally taught to put the most critical parts of a story right at the top of the article: to have the best chance of someone actually seeing them. That's known as the lede. Often, people never read past the headline. I'm no different; in the course of finding something worth writing about here, I sift through a lot of articles and many of them aren't read any further than the headline. I see a headline, decide to pass on it, and move on to the next headline. I don't have time in the day to read all those articles to completion, much less read them all and then write my own on top of it. (Non-indicative headlines like I typically use here help combat that a bit; if you skip out after one of my headlines, you haven't really been mislead on anything since I haven't really told you anything yet. I try and write so that you're driven to read as much as possible.)

Besides, this is the kind of article you tend to drop in the middle in a blind panic to do something about it or quit in nauseous exhaustion. There's no reason to suggest that the rest of the article is anything but horror on top of horror. What is this, April Fools' Day? Of course not. It's November. Besides, as Russell Puntenney of Cracked pointed out, 10,000 words is a bit far to go with it if it's just a hoax.

So New York freaked out. Anyone who didn't freak out, or was nearing the end of the article and thereby the truth, had only to look outside to see cleared streets, armed vigilantes and terrified parents rushing to school to grab their kids and get them home to prepare for the onslaught of escaped animals in order to determine that something was in fact going on. The fact that no actual animals were around was not picked up by anyone for a while- after all, it's Manhattan and there are 12 of them; they could easily be somewhere else But Coming Very Soon. The other newspapers in New York were completely taken in as well; World reporter George W. Hosmer showed up in his newsroom with a revolver in each hand exclaiming, "Well, here I am." General John A. Dix never made it to the part of the article where he personally shot a Bengal tiger, and set out with a rifle himself... thereby fulfilling the article's proclamations enough for anyone who did get that far to believe it.

Herald owner James Gordon Bennett, meanwhile, spent the day in bed along with a lot of the city.

Good idea. Because when people inevitably figured out what had actually happened, papers nationwide wanted his head. The New York Times, while conceding that the cages in the zoo could in fact stand to be upgraded, called the Herald's way of going about saying that "intensely stupid and unfeeling". Some readers even marched down to the district attorney's office to see if some sort of charges could be pressed against the paper (the answer, as it turned out, was no). The Plainfield Times (NJ), according to the book The Martians Have Landed! by Robert Bartholomew and Ben Radford, reported that one of their local residents actually did die, of a heart attack while reading the article.

The Herald ultimately weathered the storm of public discontent (and distressingly easily so). It's thought that there were later unrelated consequences to the hoax, namely a Thomas Nast cartoon from November 7, 1874 marking the original depiction of the Republican elephant. That's wrong. First off, the Herald hoax was published two days later on the 9th, and second, the Nast cartoon was backdated from October. Though once Nast's lead time caught up to it, Nast proceeded to merrily rake the Herald over the coals for months afterward.

Right along with everyone else.

The Central Park Zoo received its first permanent building in 1875.

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