Fake news in the pre-digital age: Three major stories that turned out to be false

Updated: 

So-called "fake news" has come into ultra-sharp focus following the election of Donald Trump.

You could be forgiven for thinking it is a wholly new phenomenon, something that has only recently crawled out of the digital woodwork.

But, hoax news is as old as news itself.

Here are three major scandals in the pre-social media age that had profound consequences for journalism.

Janet Cooke and "Jimmy's World", 1980

Cooke throws up her arms after winning the Pulitzer (Charles Tasnadi/AP)
Cooke throws up her arms after winning the Pulitzer (Charles Tasnadi/AP)

Janet Cooke won world acclaim with an incredibly moving account of an eight-year-old heroin addict called Jimmy living with "needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms".

The Washington Post front page story tugged at the heartstrings and provoked rage that a child was living in America's capital in this condition.

The only problem? Jimmy didn't exist.

It created such a storm that the Washington mayor and health officials rushed to find and help the drug-addicted 4th grader who reportedly lived in a smack "shooting gallery".

But, the Post invoked source protection rights.

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The colourful, bright and absorbing writing won the 25-year-old Cooke a Pulitzer and went around the world in the 1980s equivalent of going viral.

Yet, suspicions were raised about her honesty after discrepancies were noticed in her CV.

Under intense questioning from editors, she finally cracked: "There is no Jimmy and no family."

Her resignation note apologised to "my newspaper, my profession, the Pulitzer board and all seekers of the truth".

Walter Duranty and the Ukraine famine, 1933

Duranty during a foreign correspondents lunch (AP)
Duranty during a foreign correspondents lunch (AP)

The New York Times Moscow Correspondent wrote a story in 1933 titled "Russians hungry, but not starving", dismissing a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians as "a big scare story".

Duranty conceded there was "a serious food shortage" but denied reports of mass starvation as a direct result of the failed Soviet collective farming policy.

The respected correspondent wrote: "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.

"These conditions are bad, but there is no famine ... to put it brutally - you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

People read the name of deceased residents who died of hunger in 1932-33 (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)
People read the name of deceased residents who died of hunger in 1932-33 (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

The chronic famine, called the Holodomor, is estimated to have killed as many as seven million people.

In a statement decades later, the New York Times said the most "significant flaw in his coverage" was "his consistent underestimation of Stalin's brutality", citing the dictator's "omnipresent" propaganda machine.

A typist hammers away at keys (Rajanish Kakade/AP)
A typist hammers away at keys (Rajanish Kakade/AP)

But historians and commentators have argued he knew what was happening and suppressed the truth because of his admiration for Communism.

Duranty had received a Pulitzer prize for his writing the year before, which has not been revoked despite repeated protests.

The Stephen Glass Affair, 1998

Stephen Glass was a young rising star reporter at the respected liberal New Republic magazine in the late 1990s.

The 25-year old made his name writing dazzling features and glittering exclusives that made their way into publications like Rolling Stone and Harpers and were the envy of his colleagues.

But, he was also a serial fantasist who simply dreamt up the details of his reports.

His deceit unravelled in 1998 when, aged 25, he published a story called Hack Heaven.

The tale focused on a 15-year-old boy called "Ian Restil" who hacked a "big-time software firm" called "Jukt Micronics" and posted employees salaries on the company website along with nude pictures.

Bosses were so impressed they decided to hire the teenage kid, who looked "like an even more adolescent version of Bill Gates", rather than call the cops.

Glass made up fantastic details in the tale including the totally fictitious "Centre for Interstate Online Investigations"; a "super-agent to super-nerds" called Joe Hiert; and a Nevada police radio campaign discouraging hiring hackers.

It was an astonishing web of deception that collapsed when Forbes grew suspicious and investigated the article, finding it totally unverifiable.

The saga led to New Republic editors finding many of his other stories were complete fabrications.

The drama was played out in a 2003 film called Shattered Glass starring Hayden Christensen and preceded other high-profile serial hoax affairs such as Jayson Blair at The New York Times in 2003 and Jack Kelley at USA Today a year later.

All of these episodes had a huge bearing on the debate around journalistic ethics and the use of anonymous sources, shaping how the newspaper industry operates today.

Well before the Trump phenomenon and social media, fake news was duping people and causing havoc.