July 21, 2004,
Many people have attacked Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 by now; my favorite description comes from Christopher Hitchens, who called it "a load of nauseating, boring rubbish from start to finish." But long before the familiar pundits began touring the Michael Moore media circuit, urban-legend debunkers Barbara and David Mikkelson, of the indispensable Snopes.com, were on the case.
The husband-and-wife team are not professional folklorists. She describes herself as "just a housewife;" he's a computer programmer in his day job. But their website is so first-rate that retired folklore professor Jan Harold Brunvand, probably the top academic specializing in pop-culture myths, told me it's a big reason he's never bothered setting up a site of his own. "They have it all there," he said, "so I will just stick to writing books."
Snopes began as a purely urban-legends site in 1995, run out of the couple's home in the Los Angeles suburbs. But especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's become an invaluable resource for sifting through political and media facts and fallacies. You won't find a more exhaustive and nuanced dissection of Fahrenheit 9/11's central "big lie" as Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, described Moore's claims about the Bush administration's supposedly sneaking Bin Laden family members out of the U.S. before the FBI had time to question them than on Snopes.
Barbara Mikkelson has since amended her entry on Moore to apologize for her tirade against him. "Part of Mr. Moore's statement [she'd originally reacted to an interview Moore did with Fox News] has since been proved to be correct during the ban on air travel, some Saudis... were transported by air to assembly points in the U.S. in preparation for their leaving the country," she wrote. The lengthy analysis that follows, though, shows that Moore was incorrect on his major, crucial points: the Saudis left after airports reopened, and after being questioned by the FBI.
Still, wrote Barbara, evidently regretting straying from her normally cheerful and reasonable tone, "I shouldn't have yelled at him... the world is full enough already with pain and miserableness."
Anyone, but especially reporters, should check out Snopes before passing on a story that seems too good to be true. The site isn't always a wet blanket; some tall tales turn out to be accurate. Soupy Sales, for instance, actually did once tell young viewers to mail him those "little green pieces of paper" in their parents' wallets. And indeed there are, believe it or not, words to the Star Trek theme: "Beyond/the rim of the star-light/My love/is wand'ring in star-flight..."
On the other hand, another popular TV urban legend that Tom Green once dressed up as Hitler and crashed a bar mitzvah is, alas, just a story. Green even denied it to Snopes personally. "I wish it was about something funny, like me having a gerbil removed from my a** or something."
My favorite Snopes sections chide professional news organizations for reporting urban legends as fact. Reuters had a nasty little item a few years ago about drug smugglers who hid their contraband in a girl's corpse. The wire service's source was the Gulf News, which said that smugglers had kidnapped and murdered a child in order to stuff her body with codeine. But an airport official "at the unnamed Gulf state" became suspicious and arrested the smugglers, according to a United Arab Emirates policeman quoted in the Gulf News piece.
The story, which was datelined Dubai, got picked up the next day by the Guardian in the U.K., among other publications. But the whole thing was an old urban legend, and a fairly obvious one to anyone who stopped to think about it for a moment. Wouldn't a doll or diaper bag be a lot handier than a hollowed-out corpse? I asked folklore professor Jan Harold Brunvand about the media's role in spreading such stories. Brunvand, whose latest book is Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends (out in October), said that actually the media have been pretty good about correcting these tales.
But Brunvand added that "Reuters is especially prone to circulating doubtful stories, especially those that have shown up in newspapers in faraway places. The Reuters story will just say, 'as reported in the such-and-such,' which is true enough, but they apparently make no attempt to verify or investigate the item. Of course, now and then the other news services get burned too."
Reuters, which has such notoriously bizarre judgment it won't even call Islamic suicide bombers "terrorists," is one thing. But Brunvand also cited an AP story datelined Chisnau, Moldova, as "a very Reuters-like situation."
"They quoted a Moldovan newspaper telling the old Runaway Grandmother legend without the slightest hint that this was an old traditional legend," he explained. In this tale, which dates back to at least the 1930s, someone tries to sneak Granny's dead body across the border of some country for burial, but then thieves steal the van (or canoe, or whatever) and all wackiness breaks loose.
The urban legend about drug-stuffed children's corpses also has a long history. According to the "Kid-Stuffed" page on Snopes, which updates many stories collected by Brunvand, various versions of this gruesome little tale have been reported over the years. It's even mentioned in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's 1937 novel satirizing the press.
In a 1985 article about the Miami drug trade, the Washington Post cited a cocaine-stuffed dead-baby anecdote as fact, although the paper later printed a retraction once it realized the tale was apocryphal. However, The New Republic later referred to that same Post story without mentioning the retraction. (This was years before the Stephen Glass era, for the record.)
"We believe what was reported [in Dubai] was a case of an official telling an urban legend as a true story during an anti-drug lecture to students," Barbara Mikkelson told me.
Mikkelson points out on the website that drug-stuffed dead babies stories are so common in Miami that Edna Buchanan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Miami Herald crime reporter, made a point of debunking it in The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, her collection of police beat pieces just reissued in paperback.
"The dead baby is reported at least once a year," Buchanan wrote. "It did not happen. I have laid the dead baby to rest so often that I can now see its poor little pasty face in my mind's eye."
Even smart journalists fall for this stuff now and then. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby got into trouble a few years ago for passing on an urban legend about Declaration of Independence signers. My pal Toby Young reported that hoary old celebrity-and-the-ice-cream-cone anecdote as if he'd personally witnessed it when he was writing for The New York Press, which got him suspended for eight weeks. Toby, ever equable, said at the time that "seems fair."
Toby had described seeing a woman so flustered at encountering Tom Cruise in line behind her at a London ice-cream parlor that she unthinkingly stuffed her cone in her purse. This urban legend is one of the most well-worn out there, with Paul Newman in New York being a particularly popular version. Toby said he'd heard the story from a friend, assumed it was true, and put himself at the scene to add immediacy.
Jan Harold Brunvand hadn't heard the Tom Cruise version of the story until I told him about it, so that updated his files. He first wrote about the ice-cream cone tale in his 1989 book Curses, Broiled Again! and later in another collection, Too Good to be True. He e-mailed me: "I quote two versions by Paul Harvey and from a Washington state newspaper.... I also mention that in 1992 the Boston Globe ombudsman wrote an account of how his paper fell for the story."
Current searches on Snopes include John Kerry, who didn't earn his war medals under "fishy" circumstances, but did call a Secret Service agent assigned to protect him a "son-of-a-bitch"; Bush, who didn't try to start a presidential prayer team, but did salute an injured army officer in the hospital; and nefarious plots: a shipment of UPS uniforms is neither missing, nor presumed to have been stolen by terrorists.
Then there's the ever-popular page of Disney lore, which was the very first section Snopes ever did. Walt isn't cryogenically frozen, by the way, despite what you may have heard from a friend-of-a-friend who swears it's true. But that's another story.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.