Carnegie Mellon University

Embellishment, fabrication, and scandal: Hoaxing and the American press

Author: Mario Castagnero
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2009

My dissertation looks at journalistic hoaxes in American culture from the eighteenth century to the present. While many scholars understand hoaxes as practical jokes, I make the case that hoaxes have had a significant impact on the development of American journalism. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin's satirical “news stories” in the eighteenth century and ending with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces debacle on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the twenty-first, my dissertation charts an alternative cultural history of American journalism and its audience. I argue that hoaxes are events consisting of both text and textual effect; hoaxes tend to begin as textual objects and attain the status of hoax only when they are disseminated and generate secondary and tertiary accounts. In these metadiscursive moments, hoaxes come to offer some critique of their field, authorities, or audiences; such critiques are often made independent of any initial authorial intent. I show that hoaxes initially played a significant role in helping American news institutions establish themselves and increase their circulations by providing sensational and compelling stories to their readers. Yet, by the late nineteenth century, American journalism was actively recasting itself as a professional institution. This meant that newspaper professionals began to gravitate toward an “information” model, which viewed news as a series of verifiable events which could be reported objectively. With this drive toward professionalism, came a mounting need to expunge hoaxes and to visibly punish writers who fabricated news stories.

Once cast as playful, satirical ruses, hoaxes came to be recast as more serious transgressions with potentially dangerous consequences. I argue that the emergent concept of news has been shaped just as much by negative examples as by positive, definitional constructions, and hoaxes have played a key role in this process. Newspapers have continually been faced with crisis points in their history, whether in the form of the redefinition of news that the Penny Press brought about in the 1830s, the rise of Yellow Journalism in the 1890s, or the incursion of radio in the 1930s. American journalism has continually benefitted from hoaxes, and newspapers have repeatedly used them as opportunities to redefine themselves in the face of changing media economies.