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home : insight & opinion : staff columns July 3, 2020

2/23/2006 3:36:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
Common Causes
Smackdown! Banishing bogus e-mails


Have I smacked you down lately?

If so, I assure you it's nothing personal. I've smacked down friends and strangers alike, repeatedly.

The "smackdown" I'm referring to isn't physical or even verbal. It's just the only way I've found to deal with the barrage of dubious and outright false e-mail messages that used to clog my inbox, both at work at at home. I say "used to" because smacking them down seems to be working; at least I don't get nearly as many as I once did.

The smackdown simply consists of doing, promptly and on a regular basis, what most of us who get this stuff apparently don't ever take time to do: Checking out the veracity of the message, replying to the sender(s) that it's false and providing a link where they can find credible information about the subject.

That link usually leads to, which is probably the most reliable and accessible source of information about urban legends and contemporary folklore of all kinds, true and untrue, particularly the kind that circulates via e-mail.

You've seen these messages countless times, and a quick check of Snopes reveals some of the most popular:

• The commentary purportedly given by Andy Rooney on "60 Minutes" which railed against "political correctness" and tolerance. None of it could be attributed to Rooney. In fact, it would be two removes from reality even if it were real; according to Snopes, some versions of the commentary contain material lifted from a piece also circulating in cyberspace that's falsely credited to comedian George Carlin. I guess if you're creating a hoax, it's okay to steal from a fellow hoaxer.

• The petition to ban a film (that was to have come out in 2001) portraying Jesus and his disciples as gay. Though such a film was never in production, the petition appeal continues to circulate. As with much of the cyber-folklore, it contains the tiniest grain of truth; a 1998 stage production called "Corpus Christi" portrayed a "Jesus-like figure" in similar terms, Snopes says, but it was never made into a film and has never been widely performed. The petition drive apparently started as far back as 1977, when a suburban Chicago publication claimed such a film was being planned in Europe.

• The claim that may be the granddaddy of them all, that atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair was circulating a petition to ban religious broadcasting. This one actually predates the Internet by nearly 20 years, but e-mail circulation spawned endless variations on the theme. The bottom line, according to Snopes, is that "O'Hair never petitioned the FCC to ban religious programming nor was she ever granted a hearing by that regulatory body to discuss the matter. That's not all that surprising, either, for there is no federal law or regulation that gives the FCC the authority to prohibit radio and television stations from presenting religious programs."

After O'Hair's death, versions of the rumor, needing some star power to stay alive, invoked the name of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson as a leader of the fight against the petition. He has denied any involvement in the (nonexistent) issue.

And so on. What are we to make of the online-hoax phenomenon? Partly, stuff like this proliferates when those with a special responsibility for figuring out whether things are true or not - like those of us in the news business - do a lazy job. In the interest of "equal time" or "objectivity," we fail to challenge a statement as long as it balances another; as long as there are two sides represented in a story, we don't care if one is credible and one is, in the memorable phrase of a recent Daily News letter writer, "heifer dust."

Another reason inboxes brim with

baloney is that we seem ever more willing to embrace anything, true or not, as long as it resonates with our worldview. This is why, at least in recent years, so much of the folklore has centered on religious or moral issues and a healthy chunk of it circulates in the evangelical Christian community. I know, because that's my community, and I'm distressed by how gullible we can be.

Never mind that the Bible has a lot to say about being discerning and not believing everything you hear. When we get frightened - as many people of faith have been by some of the developments in modern society - our judgment suffers. And those with a political or economic interest in perpetuating the "culture wars" are only too happy to play to that fear.

So the underlying issues are serious. But if you can approach your inbox with a healthy skepticism and take a couple of steps back for perspective, it's kind of fun to see how these things develop, change, disappear and resurface as time goes on. And what's being done via e-mail these days is probably not a lot different than what's been done by word of mouth throughout our history. Like real baloney, this kind of folklore has an amazing shelf life.

Just because I may get a chuckle from the next bogus e-mail that appears on my desktop, though, doesn't mean it's not going to get smacked down. You don't have to go as far as the legendary editor who said, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Just think before you forward. Please?

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