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The Nose

Rumor of War

Posted 9/26/2001

Truth, it's been said, is the first causality of war. And as the headlines and sound bites that followed Sept. 11's heinous events tell us, we're now at war. (Where this war will be fought and against whom are questions for the disquieting days to come.) But as for keeping truth alive, in Baltimore at least, part of this effort is waged from an obscure office tucked in the top floor of downtown's Equitable Building. This is the home of an unheralded operation known as Baltimore Rumor Control. Its goal is to slay scuttlebutt.

"Oh, we took quite a few calls that week," says Thomas Saunders, a supervisor with the city Community Relations Commission and one of two folks charged with answering the rumor hotline ([410] 396-1188). "But television was right on top of events, which did not leave a room for a lot of misinformation."

In an average week, Baltimore's rumorbusters take about 20 calls. For the week of Sept. 10, 45 calls came in, 27 of them terrorism-related. Most were calm requests for information: Is such-and-such street closed, are any flights leaving the airport, etc. For the most part, Saunders admits, he just relayed what he had heard on the news.

"There was a rumor about a bomb placed" in a local pharmacy, Saunders says. "It turned out to be a lady's pocketbook left on a ledge."

At the height of the crisis, the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) established its own Rumor Control hotline, its digits regularly splashed across TV screens. The line wasn't new, just the name; MEMA spokesperson Quentin Banks says the agency temporarily termed its regular public-information line "Rumor Control" ("I hate that name," Banks says), taking about 100 calls in the two days after the terrorist attacks.

If you didn't know Baltimore has a permanent Rumor Control hotline, you're not alone. Though more than three decades old, the municipal rumor-snuffing center is little promoted today. Rumor Control's mission is squash misinformation, loose talk, and wild-haired stories that might affect the health and safety of the city. It was established in 1968 to ease tensions and provide information amid the riots that followed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Once its services were advertised on the sides of buses. Now about the only place you'll find the number is buried in the phone book's blue-paged government listings. "Most of the calls that come in today just want to know what Rumor Control is," Saunders says.

When bona fide crises such as July's underground train fire aren't gripping the city, Rumor Controllers spend a fair amount of their time debunking urban myths and other wackiness: Hey, did someone really find a rat at the Inner Harbor and take it home, thinking it was a Chihuahua? (Saunders has been questioned about this dog-eared legend more than once.) Even during the week of World Trade Center/Pentagon assaults, some folks' minds were elsewhere.

"We had people calling in saying that Whitney Houston had overdosed," Saunders reports. "We usually say that we just we don't deal with the personal lives of celebrities, but we had so many calls we did pass along that it wasn't true."

With tense times descending on us, might Rumor Control escape from the municipal obscurity in which it has long languished? Saunders says he hadn't heard anything about promoting or expanding the operation. Any such suggestion is, well, strictly a rumor.

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