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Rumor Control

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 2/7/2001

Eleven years ago, in an isolated Nicaraguan village, I observed a phenomenon that would have been funnier if it hadn't kept me awake for hours on end. Somewhere in town a dog would start barking. Other dogs would pick up the theme, and they would inspire still others. And the chorus would sweep away across the village as the original set of barkers settled back down to sleep. Then the wave of noise would rebound from the far edge of town and roll back, louder and louder, eventually waking the dogs who had started the process, and the cycle would repeat, over and over. Often roosters would pick it up; sometimes the approaching wave of crowing roosters would cross the departing wave of barking dogs. It went on long after the first dog had doubtless forgotten what got him started.

Those Nicaragua nights came to mind when I received, for the fourth or fifth time, a bogus e-petition concerning the imminent demise of public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Maybe you've seen it too: "On NPR's Morning Edition last week, Nina Tottenberg [sic] said that if the Supreme Court supports Congress, it is in effect the end of the National Public Radio, NEA, and the Public Broadcasting System . . ." Et cetera. The missive concludes with carefully worded instructions on how to continue the chain and turn in filled "petitions." "That way," the letter explains, "we can keep track of the lists and organize them."

Right. If the misspelling of Nina Totenberg's name didn't tip you off, you might even have forwarded this clunker, as the now-embarrassed author of this column did roughly eight months ago. It had come to me, of course, from a trusted friend; its tone was urgent and earnest; it concerned the survival of NPR, which I rely on not just for information, but for intelligent background noise. The thought of life without noncommercial radio bothered me, so I tacked on the customary disclaimer ("I usually don't forward these things, but . . .") and sent it to a dozen like-minded pals. Fortunately, someone on my list had the courtesy to tell me it was a hoax. When the item reappeared in my e-mail twice in the last month, I decided to get to the bottom of it.

According to NPR spokesperson Jessamyn Sarmiento, public broadcasting is doing just fine--for now. In a canned response that she sends out to those rare souls who actually check the facts behind the chain letter, Sarmiento notes that Congress recently approved $365 million in funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for fiscal year 2003, up from $348.8 million for FY 2002.

As to the e-letter itself, Sarmiento says it's based on information that is five years out of date--a veritable e-fossil. It keeps going, I presume, because it's perennially plausible, because there's a vast, wired constituency for public broadcasting, and because it got out of the box in the first place.

The story of its origin has been reported a number of times over the years but it bears repeating just because the damn thing is still alive--and, importantly, because it keeps mutating, for reasons that are not at all clear. Back in 1995, a couple of students at the University of Northern Colorado, alarmed by threatened cuts to federal funding for the arts, cooked up the original chain letter. Since then, it has gained momentum from pseudo updates. Later in '95, some paragraphs were added by persons other than the original writers, warning of the impending demise of Sesame Street. According to the Urban Legends Reference Page, the two Colorado students were "almost immediately swamped with 2,000 incoming e-mails a day" from freaked-out fans of Bert and Ernie. Meanwhile, congressional budget cuts proved to be less Draconian than feared, and the students, under pressure from annoyed university officials, tried vainly to get their genie back into the bottle. Apparently they failed.

The current variation of the letter, featuring the bogus reference to Totenberg, started in 1999, but it still carries a return address at the University of Northern Colorado, and the document continues to be misleadingly re-dated; the last one I received was marked Dec. 27, 2000. What started as a well-intentioned (if politically naive) call to arms has, by this point, evolved into something so baseless and alarmist that it deserves to be called a hoax.

As a former dupe, I've come to a few edifying conclusions. In the first place, e-mail "petitions," even when factually correct, are in and of themselves a total waste of time. Even if the listed names were signatures--which they aren't--there's not a politician on Earth who cares if half-million geeks from Oahu to Orlando add their names to such a document. Politicians basically don't care about the opinions of nonconstituents. If, on the other hand, you were to send, say, a U.S. senator's e-mail (or mailing) address to a list of his or her constituents, you could provoke some direct communication with the senator and have an impact.

Finally--and obviously--there are direct ways to support public broadcasting, like sending a check to your local NPR or PBS affiliate.

Real People, Real Bullshit

"Art Modell worked tirelessly to bring NFL football back to Baltimore"

--Stan Stovall, WMAR (channel 2) news

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