• ETHICS: Honesty

A series of articles in the New York Sun in 1835 contained the following description:

The whole breadth of the northern extremity of the sea, which was about three hundred miles, having crossed our plane, we entered upon a wild mountainous region abounding with more extensive forests of larger trees than we had seen before — the species of which I have no good analogy to describe. In general contour they resembled our forest oak; but they were much more superb in foliage, having broad glossy leaves like that of the laurel, and tresses of yellow flowers which hung, in the open glades, from the branches to the ground. These mountains passed, we arrived at a region which filled us with utter astonishment. It was an oval valley, surrounded, except at narrow opening towards the south, by hills, red as the purest vermilion, and evidently crystallized; for wherever a precipitous chasm appeared — and these chasms were very frequent, and of immense depth — the perpendicular sections present conglomerated masses of polygon crystals, evenly fitted to each other, and arranged in deep strata, which grew darker in color as they descended to the foundations of the precipices. Innumerable cascades were bursting forth from the breasts of every one of these cliffs, and some so near their summits, and with such great force, as to form arches many yards in diameter. I never was so vividly reminded of Byron’s simile, “the tale of the white horse in the Revolution.” At the foot of this boundary of hills was a perfect zone of woods surrounding the whole valley, which was about eighteen or twenty miles wide, at its greatest breadth, and about thirty in length. Small collections of trees, of every imaginable kind, were scattered about the whole of the luxuriant area; and here our magnifiers blest our panting hopes with specimens of conscious existence.

In the shade of the woods on the south-eastern side, we beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history. . . .

What exotic place does this passage describe? Someplace in Africa? An unexplored region of America?

Neither. It purports to describe a region of the moon, as seen through a powerful telescope. The articles were written by Richard Adams Locke, a leading New York journalist of his day, and were spread out over a week. The most sensational revelations came late in the series when Locke describe human-like creatures that the powerful telescope had picked up.

The New York Sun at that point was less than two years old, but Locke’s articles captured the attention of the city, and circulation soared to nearly 20,000 copies a day. After the series ended, discussion about it continued. Eventually, another newspaper revealed that the whole thing had been made up, but it still took a while for the Sun to admit that the articles were not true.

Despite that, the Sun’s circulation continued to rise, and Locke’s career as a journalist went on for several more years.

The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 – and possibly our reaction to it – shows us how different today’s journalism is from that practiced in the early 19th century. Certainly, there are dishonest journalists today – people who willingly make things up and try to pass them off as the truth. But there are few, if any, instances where whole news organizations do that.

Unlike 1835, audiences expect news organizations to tell the truth.

And unlike 1835, information that is incorrect can be more easily checked and refuted, if necessary.

Finally, unlike 1835, honesty is a professional characteristic of value, not just a personal one.

Read more about the Great Moon Hoax here:

Museum of Hoaxes : http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/moonhoax.html


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