The Urban Legend That Could
Earlier this week, a friend forwarded Chatterbox an anonymous Fourth of July tribute to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. The point of the essay, which has been floating around for a decade on the Internet and on newspaper letters-to-the-editor pages (where it's been attributed to many different people), was to enumerate the various ways the signatories suffered for their rebellion. Like most "inside information" of uncertain provenance that circulates via e-mail on the Web, it was factually inaccurate. (To read it, along with commentary from the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's urban legends reference team, click here.) Unlike most such material, however, this ended up getting picked up this week in four professional columns! Let's rate them on how they handled the story:
Ann Landers: Landers' July 4 column was one of only two that acknowledged the existence of the phantom e-mail. Landers, of course, makes no bones about the fact that most of her material is sent in by readers, whom she identifies by first name. "Ellen in New Jersey" submitted a text that was nearly identical to the e-mail, but she (and, therefore, Landers) acknowledged it was something she'd received from a friend and that she didn't know who wrote it.
Honesty score: A
Unfortunately, neither Ellen in New Jersey nor Landers seems to have lifted a finger to verify what the e-mail said. As a result, Landers' column passed along two obvious howlers:
- "Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died." In a phone conversation, Brown University historian Gordon Wood told Chatterbox, "That's not true. ... I don't recall anyone being captured and tortured till they died." Neither does Joshua Micah Marshall, Washington editor of the American Prospect, occasional Slate contributor, and a Ph.D. candidate in colonial American history who studied under Wood.
- "Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family constantly. He served in Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken, and poverty was his reward." Wood: "He ended up being governor of Pennsylvania and chief justice of Pennsylvania. ... He didn't end up in poverty."
Accuracy score: D
Jeff Jacobyof the Boston Globe: Jacoby's July 3 column occasioned a wordy but mild rebuke in the July 6 paper after his editors learned it was inspired by the phantom e-mail. "While facts about the signers are part of the historical record and do not require attribution," the Globe said, "Jacoby should have alerted readers that the concept and structure for his column were not entirely original." Dan Kennedy, media critic of the Boston Phoenix, came to Jacoby's defense in an e-mail to Jim Romenesko's Media News, which linked to the embarrassing Globe notice. Kennedy said that far from hiding his column's provenance, Jacoby acknowledged it in an e-mail to about 100 people the day before the column ran. Unfortunately, Jacoby didn't acknowledge it in the column itself.
Honesty score: C-minus
Chatterbox couldn't identify any inaccuracies in Jacoby's column, so he'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Accuracy score: A