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Jack Smith

All the News That Fits the Gullibility Gap

September 13, 1988|Jack Smith

Another urban folk tale has made the newspapers, proving once again how gullible we are, and how much we love a good story, even if it isn't true.

You may have read this one. It was printed, as gospel, in The Times, under that logo of reliability--United Press International.

The dateline was Jerusalem. The story originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post, from which it was picked up by the ever-vigilant UPI.

According to the story, an Israeli woman found a cockroach in her living room; she stomped it and dropped it in the toilet. It was still kicking, so she emptied a can of pesticide into the bowl.

Moments later her husband came home from work. He went into the bathroom, sat on the toilet and lit a cigarette. When he finished smoking he dropped the butt in the bowl. The glowing cigarette ignited the insecticide and the husband suffered embarrassing, and, one assumes, painful burns.

Paramedics removing the husband from the house down a stairway laughed so hard at his predicament that they dropped the stretcher. The husband fell on the steps, fracturing his pelvis and two ribs.

That story appeared in The Times on Friday, Aug. 26. The next day UPI cast doubt on the story. Then, a third story appeared, also with a Jerusalem dateline, reporting that the Post had printed a retraction, saying that the story had no basis in fact. It was a story that had taken on validity as it grew, the Post explained, rather lamely, and "assumed a newsworthiness it never should have had." The Post said it had not decided whether to discipline the young reporter who recycled it.

So once more we have been taken in by an urban folk tale. All urban folk tales have certain qualities in common. Though improbable, they are theoretically possible. They are always told second or third hand. You never hear them from the victim himself, but from someone who knows the victim, or knows someone else who knows him, and who can vouch for his reliability.

The narrator will say, "This happened to my aunt," or "This happened to my aunt's boss." It is more likely that it happened to his aunt's boss, because that puts one person between the narrator and the victim. There is no way to cross-examine.

Some urban myths never die. Some years ago an Associated Press correspondent in the South, evidently as bored as his colleague in Jerusalem, heard a story about a man whose car died on a highway. A woman driver stopped to offer help and he told her that if she would give him a push his car would start. However, he said, she would have to be going about 35 miles an hour. The man thereupon got in his car and the woman got in hers. A minute later the man was horrified to see, in his rear-view mirror, the woman bearing down on his rear at 35 miles an hour.

The AP man put the story on the wire and it went out all over the nation, until it was questioned and AP found out there was no police record to substantiate it.

But it keeps turning up. Essentially, it is a sexist joke. I don't know how it would work if the Good Samaritan were a man.

In recent months I have received three or four letters relating a story about a dead cat. Essentially they are all the same. In each case, the story happened to a relative or friend of the letter writer, or to a friend of a relative or friend, so that its truth is beyond question.

This is what happens. A woman leaves her house to go to the doctor's office. She backs out of the driveway and runs over the neighbor's cat. Getting out of her car she finds the cat dead. Being in a hurry, she picks the cat up and drops it into an empty shopping bag and puts it in the back seat. While she is in the doctor's office, her car is burglarized. She returns to find the bag with the dead cat missing.

What makes this story fascinating, of course, are its unknown consequences. What will the woman tell her neighbor? How will the thief react when he opens the shopping bag and finds the dead cat? Take it away, AP.

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