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Yes, America, There Is Still Hope

June 06, 1998|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I gotta tell ya: Bob Hope is not dead.

In fact, the 95-year-old comedian was eating breakfast at his Toluca Lake home Friday as an erroneous announcement of his death was made from the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington.

"Mr. Speaker, I have the sad responsibility to tell you this afternoon that Bob Hope passed away," said solemn-faced Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz). "We will all miss him very much."

Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) rose to offer a eulogy to other House members.

"We are all saddened by his passing. He provided so much joy and happiness to this planet and to our servicemen and women in particular. He was a great American and a great world figure. We thank him for the memories."

Back at his own house, Hope was having the last laugh.

"They were wrong, weren't they?" he reportedly cracked as calls of condolence started pouring in from friends.

The false report of Hope's death was blamed on a pre-written wire service obituary that was inadvertently displayed on a World Wide Web site operated by the Associated Press.

The advance story, prepared for use in the event of Hope's death, was marked by a series of Xs to show editors where to fill in the time and place of the entertainer's death.

But it looked real to an aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

Armey handed a printout of the story to Stump, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and the main sponsor of a resolution that made Hope an honorary veteran last year. Armey asked the 71-year-old Arizonan to announce the death to other lawmakers.

Stump's announcement was carried live by C-SPAN television and quickly picked up by news organizations. Several radio stations in Los Angeles flashed the erroneous news.

All-news outlet KNX (1070-AM) had its listeners believing Hope was dead for nearly 10 minutes until it issued a correction.

"We treat U.S. congressmen as a usually reliable source," station news director Bob Sims said.

Rival news station KFWB (980-AM) held off reporting Stump's announcement until it checked with Hope's local offices and learned that the comedian was still alive. KFI (640-AM) also held back when it could not find confirmation on the AP wire, a spokesman said.

By that time, the AP had discovered its Internet error and yanked the advance obituary from its Web site. Ruth Gersh, an AP Web site editor, blamed the story's display on a "technical problem" and said the wire service was investigating the goof.

The AP's regular wires didn't report Stump's announcement for more than an hour. That's when the wire service issued an advisory noting that the AP "is aware of the erroneous reports from across the nation about entertainer Bob Hope. Hope is fine and was just having breakfast." Later it issued a short story explaining its Web site mix-up.

The rival Reuters news agency in Washington, which was the first to report Stump's announcement, suggested that the AP held back because it knew about its Web site mistake. Reuters senior correspondent Jonathan Wright said his agency was "cautious, but we felt the sourcing was adequate. It was the floor of the House, after all."

Stump, meantime, spent the afternoon apologizing to constituents and others who angrily telephoned his Capitol Hill office.

The former cotton farmer said he called Hope's daughter, Linda, to apologize.

"We're trying now to set the record straight," he said.

In Los Angeles, longtime Hope spokesman Ward Grant was trying to do the same thing.

"If they want to set the record straight, they should run back out there to the House floor and say Mr. Hope is alive," Grant said. "That's how they should handle it."

Lawmakers were still eulogizing Hope when Armey did just that.

Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee was offering "the family of Bob Hope the sympathy of this House and my personal sympathy" when Armey asked her to yield the floor.

"Mr. Speaker, earlier today I made an announcement that was erroneous regarding a report that Bob Hope had passed away. I want to apologize to Bob Hope, his family and the entire nation," Armey said.

Michele Davis, an aide to Armey, said the majority leader tried to call Hope to apologize but couldn't get through. So he sent a fax.

Good thing he didn't try e-mailing it over the Internet.

*

Times staff writers Greg Braxton, Judith Michaelson and Alissa Rubin contributed to this story.

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