Journalism as an occupation with ethical standards was a 20th century invention.  For a brief, shining moment in time, journalists were interested in truth and newspapers flourished.  Truth is subjective, of course, and so are editors who set the tone of newspapers and during the time when the press had power across all society, editors were on the left and the right.   Newspapers reached everyone, multiple times each day.

Today, the 'fourth estate', as Edmund Burke termed it in the 18th century, still has considerable power - it makes presidents and brings down companies - but it is less trusted than it was two generations ago.

However, the partisan press of today is absolutely squeaky clean compared to its predecessors.  Eric Borer, 'Desuko'(1), writes at PCL LinkDump about The Sun of New York (different than The New York Sun more recently), which at various times wrote some pretty good stuff, but made its name with some downright funny stuff.

On this day in 1835, The Sun, looking to make a splash, began a six-part story about Bat People living on the Moon.  

Portrait of a man-bat (Vespertilio-homo), from an edition of the moon series published in Naples.
Portrait of a man-bat (Vespertilio-homo), from an edition of the moon series published in Naples. Credit: Wikipedia

Bat people, you may ask?  Hey, it was 1835.  Did you know in 1835 there were no bat people on the Moon?  I rest my case.

 Sir John Herschel, the outstanding astronomer who named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus and whose father is namesake of the Herschel Telescope in use today, was listed as the science source for the discovery of "bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids (Vespertilio-homo) who built temples" on the Moon, all found using his telescope in South Africa.(2)  The material supposedly came from a Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science.
 In this unusual addition to our Journal, we have the happiness of making known to the British publick, and thence to the whole civilized world, recent discoveries in Astronomy which will build an imperishable monument to the age in which we live, and confer upon the present generation of the human race a proud distinction through all future

It has been poetically said, that the stars of heaven are the hereditary regalia of man, as the intellectual sovereign of the animal creation. He may now fold the Zodiack around him with a loftier conscientiousness of his mental supremacy.

- Museum of Hoaxes
The Sun was not the first to take this approach.  In 1824, Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, professor of Astronomy at Munich University, published the paper "Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings", where he believed shadows he saw were climate zones.

Did it work?  Sure, no differently than journalism today, sensationalism sells, and being a 'conservative' paper in New York was as tough then as it is today.   The New York Times rules the city for a reason.   But there are a few reasons you have heard of The Sun even if the name is not familiar.

The first is because of John Bogart, city editor of The Sun in the late 1800s, whose landmark quote on journalism goes "When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news."

The second is because of the 1897 Francis Church editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus".  They won Pulitzer prizes and, more importantly, a place in pop-culture history.  A series of stories about crime became the basis for the 1954 movie "On the Waterfront" - who hasn't imitated Marlon Brando??   Brando and The Sun would cross paths again in "The Godfather"; they are in the newspaper clippings montage when they all go to the mattresses over the attempted murder of Don Corleone.

The Sun died in 1950, merging with another paper and the combined entity folded in 1966 - but the Bat People live on.


(1) He also crafts an interesting 'movie a day' column on his site, which is worth checking out if you like movies.

(2) Herschel seems to have been a pretty good sport about it, noting it was the only time he got any press, but had to have been a little irked by people who refused to believe it was a hoax and wanted to ask him questions about it.