10 Craziest Media Hoaxes

As young Falcon Heene’s would-be balloon flight has proved to be an orchestrated hoax, we look back at other instances of stories the media flubbed.

10.17.09 12:02 PM ET

As authorities say young Falcon Heene’s would-be balloon flight has proved to be an orchestrated hoax, we look back at other instances of stories the media flubbed.

Falcon Never Took Off

The world seemed to grind to a halt Thursday afternoon as cable news stations ran live footage of a large, flying saucer-like object floating across the Colorado sky, with alarming reports that a six-year-old named Falcon Heene was trapped inside. When the balloon landed, it was revealed to be empty. Authorities later announced that the little boy was hiding in an attic crawl space throughout the entire saga. Now that authorities have decided the incident was a hoax, charges may be filed against Falcon’s parents.

Geraldo's Empty Vault

In 1996, Geraldo Rivera hosted a special called The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault, in which the contents of a vault once owned by the infamous mobster would be revealed on live television. Thirty million people tuned in hoping to see money, valuables, maybe bodies of Capone’s enemies. Instead they got nothing but a lot of dust and debris, making Geraldo a national punchline for years to come.

Susan Smith, Child Killer

One of the biggest media hoaxes of the 1990s was also one of the saddest. In 1994, South Carolina mother Susan Smith filed a report saying an African-American man had stolen her car with her two sons still inside. A nationwide manhunt for the carjacker ensued, followed aggressively by the press, but a week later Smith confessed she had rolled her car into a lake, leaving her two young sons to drown.

Mark Sanford's Trip to Argentina

Last June, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford concerned the nation when he mysteriously disappeared for six days, spanning Father’s Day weekend. Eventually, his staff announced he’d been “hiking in the Appalachians” to clear his mind. But shortly thereafter, Sanford revealed he'd actually been in South America with his Argentinean lover. He would later describe María Belén Chapur as his “soulmate.”

The Runaway Bride

In the spring of 2005, wide-eyed Jennifer Wilbanks—aka, the “runaway bride”—captivated the country when she disappeared from her hometown of Duluth, Georgia, days before she was supposed to get married. After a nationwide manhunt, Wilbanks called her fiancé from New Mexico, claiming she’d been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a Hispanic man and a white woman, a story she later repeated to the cops. Turns out she’d simply skipped town on a bus, thanks to a case of cold feet. In this clip, Georgia residents pay homage their hometown antihero.

Aliens Invade New Jersey

He might not have intended it to be a hoax, but Orson Welles’ famed War of the Worlds radio broadcast successfully deceived—and terrified—the nation. On October 30, 1938, in a special Halloween episode, the well-known host read from H.G. Wells’ novel about a Martian invasion on the CBS radio drama Mercury Theatre on the Air, convincing listeners that New Jersey was being attacked by aliens. Mass hysteria ensued.

The Roswell Surgery

In 1995—better known as the dark days before YouTube—Londoner Ray Santilli distributed a video that he claimed was footage from an alien autopsy near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Even without help from the Internet, the video went viral, but alas, it was soon proven to be little more than movie magic, complete with a latex dummy.

The Frozen Bigfoot

Many have claimed to have spotted the great American mythical beast, Bigfoot, but a pair of men took it a step further in 2008 when they claimed to have Bigfoot’s corpse stashed in their freezer. Much to the dismay of cryptozoologists everywhere, it turned out to be nothing more than a gorilla suit.

The Backward B

Right before the 2008 presidential election, a young campaign volunteer for John McCain named Ashley Todd claimed that she was mugged at an ATM by an Obama supporter who assaulted her and carved a backward B into her cheek. The hoax was quickly uncovered and Todd admitted to carving up her own face (in the mirror, hence the backward B). The whole incident was a PR nightmare for McCain, rivaled only by the shenanigans of his own running mate.

The Real JT LeRoy

James Frey gets a lot of flack for embellishing his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, but what do you do when an author turns out not to exist at all? That’s what happened with JT LeRoy, a supposed transgendered addict/prostitute-turned-author, turned out to be the imaginary brainchild of Laura Albert, who sent her boyfriend’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, to public events to pose as LeRoy. The literary elite who’d admired LeRoy’s grit eventually turned their back on him. (Her. Them. Whatever.) In this video, legendary club kid James St. James weighs in on the debacle.

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