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The New York Sun

It is suggested by a reader that next week — the 175th anniversary of what is called by competing newspapers the Sun’s great moon “hoax” — would be an apt moment to issue a long overdue correction. Our correspondent writes in respect of a series of stories issued by this newspaper in the last week of August, 1835, two years after the paper was founded. The stories, often attributed to a plot hatched in our circulation department, reported not only that astronomers, gazing through a new type of telescope based in South Africa, had discovered life on the moon but that they had seen swarms of flying lunar man-bats.

So celebrated is this series that an entire book, “The Sun and the Moon,” was written about it by a learned fellow named Matthew Goodman. The editor of the Sun, reviewing Mr. Goodman’s tome in the Wall Street Journal, noted that the reports referred to the discovery of what the editor called “vast forests and fields of poppies and lunar animals.” Summarized he: “First to be sighted was a herd of quadrupeds and then an animal that the Sun said ‘would be classified on earth as a monster,’ a bluish-gray thing about the size of a goat but with a single horn in the center of its head.”

One of the much remarked upon features of the so-called “hoax” is that the details were, as the editor of the Sun put it in the Journal, “run out in the Sun over several days, culminating in a report of how Dr. John Herschel, the operator of the telescope, and his team spied what Mr. Goodman calls ‘four flocks of large winged creatures.’ The creatures were seen ‘descending in a slow, even motion from the cliffs to the plain, where they landed and, their wings disappearing behind them, began walking, erect and dignified, toward a nearby forest.’”

The main result of this series was that circulation of the Sun soared. Mobs of New Yorkers — thousands of them, in Mr. Goodman’s report — besieged the offices of the Sun, clamoring for copies of the paper. The old windbag Horace Greeley, then editor of a rag called the New-Yorker, joined the crowds and later wrote, as Mr. Goodman reminded us, that copies of the Sun were selling “faster than all the Bible Societies in the universe could give away the Sacred Book.” Circulation of the Sun rocketed — forgive the pun — to 19,360, which dwarfed not only every other paper in New York but topped even the Times in London, a city six times larger than the Sun’s own. So the modern newspaper was born in what our critics like to ascribe to journalistical original sin.

Well, we say, let them laugh. For a while Old Greeley took a high-minded tone in the Tribune, a veritable John Kerry, but his true character was finally disclosed when he tried to build his circulation on the proposition that it would be okay to let the South secede and again when, once the war started, he actually tried to broker a peace parley with the rebels. He was lucky our man Lincoln didn’t string him up for treason. And let Mr. Sulzberger snicker; his own circulation campaign is based on hiring Doctor Krugman to try to electrify back to life the moldering corpse of John Maynard Keynes. He’d do better selling his readers on the winged horses of Pluto.

But who can blame him? All over the country newspapers are trying ever more sensational stunts — the globe is getting dangerously warm, some say, or paper money should be accepted as legal tender. Well, look what happened with Mr. Murdoch and the New York Post; his circulation numbers were doing pretty well, until he got greedy and tried further titillating his readers with the idea that the best bet for governor was Eliot Spitzer. Look what happened then. He had to retreat to the Wall Street Journal.

So let us just say that one of the things a long newspaper life has taught us about corrections is that, obligatory as they may be when the truth is out, one doesn’t want to rush into them. For the moment, let us just say that we’re aware of the claim there are no lunar man-bats, neither on the moon nor here. Rest assured that we’re looking into it. You can check back in this space in 25 years. If, meantime, the other newspapers are putting it out that the whole moon thing is a hoax, consider their own interests in this Great Competition, their own circulation numbers, and some of the things they’ve tried to get you to believe.

The New York Sun

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