foreign propaganda excluded, and with some unfortunate exceptions,
these days "fake news" is code for any given article or broadcast
that puts you or something in which you believe in a bad light.
But back in the mid to latter part of the so-called Gay '90s (as
in 1890s) fake news was simply fake news. It especially tended to
occur on slow news days. Few decried the practice and, assuming
no malicious intent on anyone's part, almost everyone laughed about
Indeed, this was a time in American history when a little mirth
was generally well-appreciated. The nation was just coming off its
worst financial depression to that point in history, a severe economic
downturn sparked by the Panic of 1893. A year later, millions of
Americans had no jobs. The wealthy minority of "haves" continued
with the luxuries of the gilded era while the "have-nots" were in
many cases practically starving. Some former breadwinners resorted
By the second half of the decade, while painfully fresh on most
people's minds, the situation had improved, if slowly. Still, money-more
specifically whether to continue the gold standard-stood as the
preeminent political issue of the day. In 1898, at his residence
in Austin, former Gov.
James E. Hogg for a time hosted his friend former U.S. Senator William
Jennings Bryan. Famous for his "Cross of Gold" speech, Bryan was
making what would prove his second of three unsuccessful presidential
D. (Doc) Hornaday and Asher G. Smoot, two Austin
journalists, had managed to hold onto their jobs through the depression.
They supplemented their modest newspaper salaries by filing Austin
and Texas-related news articles with various out-of-state newspapers.
Back then the practice was known as "stringing," since writers got
paid based on the pasted-together inches of published text they
Needing something to write but having nothing to write about, Hornaday
hatched an idea. Why not, he suggested to his colleague Smoot, write
up an imaginary ostrich race between Hogg (who at roughly 300 pounds
likely would have killed any ostrich he tried to ride) and Bryan.
The would-be president was no toothpick himself. Surely everyone
would get the joke.
Smoot, then on the staff of the Austin Statesman, hesitated at first.
He had never heard of such a thing as ostrich racing, but Hornaday
explained it actually had become something of a national fad. Naturally,
there were ethical issues to be considered. In the end, both journalists
decided most readers would take coverage of such a purported event
with the proverbial grain of salt and they proceeded to craft their
The two young men filed stories with their respective big-city clients,
including the New York Herald and Chicago Tribune. The advanced
non-existent event, which faster than a long-legged running bird
became "The Great Ostrich Race," would match Hogg and Bryan in a
race from the Capitol south down Congress Avenue to the Colorado
River. The only truth in the whole matter was that Hogg did actually
own a pair of ostriches, given to him when he was governor.
The phony stories delighted gullible readers and therefore editors.
Soon Hornaday and Smoot began receiving telegrams from New York
and elsewhere requesting more details on the big race, especially
comments from the two contestants. Editors also wanted to know what
odds the gamblers were laying.
Of course, the two scribes had not consulted with Hogg or Bryan.
The former governor had begun his career as a newspaper editor in
East Texas, and apparently
was more appreciative of a good joke than Bryan.
mind having an ostrich race with Mr. Bryan," Hogg told Hornaday
after word of the initial stories reached Austin, "but he seems
a little bit sensitive about what he has...been reading. I suggest
that you and Smoot lay off of him for a while."
Hornaday consulted with his partner in journalistic crime and they
came up with a solution that not only would put the figurative head
of the ostrich race into the sand, it would make them a little more
money. As quickly as they could get the words down, the two newsmen
wired their newspapers that the race had been canceled because one
of the ostriches had suddenly taken ill.
The journalistic shenanigans on Hornaday and Smoot's part had no
adverse impact on their careers. Hornaday stayed with the San Antonio
Express until 1917, when he went to work for the University of Texas
as that institutions first media relations person and held the job
until he retired in 1938. Smoot left the Austin Statesman to be
co-founder and general manager of the morning Austin American in
1914, but died at 46 the following year of natural causes possibly
triggered by overwork.
Smoot's father, Rev. Richard Kelley Smoot, happened to be the cleric
who had officiated at the Austin
wedding of Athol Estes and William Sydney Porter (latter far better
known as O. Henry) in 1887. The budding short story writer, who
by 1898 was on his way to federal prison for bank embezzlement,
surely took a little cheer in reading about the Great Ostrich Race
concocted by two fellow wordsmiths with a sense of humor.