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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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

Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online: Goldberg’s July 1-2 column, like Jacoby’s, did not acknowledge the existence of the phantom e-mail. In an e-mail to Chatterbox, Goldberg said he knew about the e-mail, and acknowledged the similarity:

If the ‘structure’ of my column was too close to the e-mail’s, I guess that’s unfortunate, but my column had a lot of original content that was different than the e-mail’s and I checked out everything I used.

This is, of course, not quite as good as clarifying the debt before your column runs, unprompted by a reporter’s query, as Jacoby did. And neither Jacoby nor Goldberg did as well in the disclosure department as Landers’ “Ellen in New Jersey.” However, a year before writing this column, Goldberg wrote another column that not only acknowledged the phantom e-mail but reprinted it, Ellen-in-New Jersey style. (“If it turns out to be false, please don’t hold it against me,” Goldberg hedged at the time.) Goldberg’s dishonesty is mitigated by the fact that he’d cited the phantom e-mail before. But it’s also compounded by the fact that he never correctedhis earlier column after he “checked out everything I used.”

Honesty score: D

Goldberg wrote: “Nine died from wounds received in battle.” This echoed the phantom e-mail, but Chatterbox noted with interest that Jacoby toned this down to “Two were wounded in battle,” which agreed with an analysis by E. Brooke Harlowe, assistant professor of political science at Susquehanna University, that’s linked to the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society’s urban legends page. Chatterbox asked Goldberg to give up his sources. One was a July 1999 Washington Times article by Matthew A. Rarey that appears to have borrowed language (“wounds or hardships”) from the phantom e-mail; one was a July 1999 letter to the editor of the Bergen County Record by Clifton J. Salkins that includes lengthy passages lifted verbatim from the phantom e-mail; one was a July 1999 article by Richard Skidmore in the Los Angeles Daily News that is a slightly beefed-up rewrite of the phantom e-mail; and the fourth was a 1995 speech by U.S. Rep. Stephen Horn that also seems to be derived from the phantom e-mail (three statistics, including the nine who “died in battle,” come in exactly the same sequence).

Accuracy score: C

Michael Kelley of the Memphis Commercial Appeal: Kelley is Chatterbox’s new hero. His July 2 column began: “Declaration signers don’t need cyber-hype.” Kelley related receiving the e-mail, initially being “really hooked,” but eventually smelling a rat. His column then proceeded to enumerate various errors, including several that Chatterbox missed.

Honesty score: A

Accuracy score: A

(Incidentally, this Michael Kelley shouldn’t be confused with the Michael Kelly–no “e”–who writes a column for the Washington Post and somehow also finds time to edit both the Atlantic Monthly and National Journal.)