Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Things We Think We Know

Reading today's Bleat from James Lileks took me to this research from Snopes. It tells the apocryphal story of Uncle Don, who supposedly uttered the career-killing phrase "There, that oughta hold the little bastards." on-air at the end of his well-loved children's radio show. As the Snopes article exhaustively shows, it never happened. In fact, the story is traced back into the early 1920's, long before Uncle Don ever went on the air.

And yet, people still believe it's true, even today. Maybe especially today, since we are so far removed from it. No one who was alive then is alive now to back it up. There is no recorded or documented evidence.

And so the story persists. I've become somewhat sensitive to this lately, as I've had some incidents in my personal life where I was sure I remembered something, only to find out I'm wrong. Sometimes very wrong. It's affected my blogging, as I'm now not always sure I remember something the way I think I do.

But that's neither here nor there at the moment. People today assume that with our all-pervasive, all-seeing media that there is no room for this kind of apocrypha. And yet there is. My favorite is the Bush Thanksgiving plastic turkey. Remember President Bush's surprise visit on Thanksgiving Day 2003 to visit the troops in Iraq? It was a bold move and won him lots of press and kudos.

But there were some who just couldn't stand that Bush would do such a thing and they went looking for some way to undermine the story. What did they find? A fake turkey. The slimmest of reeds was pegged to tie down a "the turkey was fake, just like the President" metaphor.

Only that wasn't the end of it. As Tim Blair has exhaustively documented (use his blog's search tool to find all the examples), the "fake" turkey morphed into a "plastic" turkey, an inedible one rather than a showpiece one. And it's spread ever since. Watch for it to reappear this coming Thanksgiving season.

Talk with Lefties and they'll remember the "plastic" turkey prop that Bush waved for the cameras. It's just wrong.

Or take something closer to home. During the tax protests of 2002, the press of this state was unified in their presentation of the tax protesters in Nashville as being a "horn honking, rock throwing mob." It was the only phrase used to describe them and it was repeated in every media outlet in this state. Yes, they were horn honkers, to get the Legislature's attention; yes, there was a rock thrown, allegedly, one day, into the Governor's office.

But have you seen any photos of the Governor's office with the rock in it? Or the broken window? Or any State Trooper holding the alleged rock? There are photos of a window at the State Capitol that was broken when a protester leaned too hard against it. (Sorry, can't find that link this morning.) If you can find any of these photos, please send a link along. I'd like to see them.

Because of the ubiquity of the repetition, lazy writers with a political bias just passing along a witty phrase, it's stuck. And what was an unprecedented display of public anger at their government was reduced to a circus sideshow poster.

That shows the power of the Big Lie, of the ability of the media to keep false stories alive. The Commercial Appeal's Chris Peck loves to talk about the press' rigorous fact-checking process, and how it weeds out the false, but then he fails to mention that most papers don't fact-check the papers and stories they carry from the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post. They take their stories as received truth and just pass them along. So, false information gets picked up and spread.

And we believe something that never happened.

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