Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: The Hoax that Launched a Thousand Ships
The country of Kuwait provided material and strategic support to Saddam Hussein's government during Iraq’s eight-year war against its neighbor, Iran. In addition to $14 billion in loans, the Kuwaiti government opened up national ports for Iran to use after the shutdown of Basra. This resulted in a huge debt, one that Iraq could scarcely pay back after blowing its wad on war. In an effort to raise funds, Hussein suggested a rise in oil prices. Kuwait and the rest of OPEC, under pressure from the West to keep oil prices reasonable, balked at the suggestion. Going the cartel one better, the Kuwaiti ruling family increased oil production, thus ensuring that prices would remain low.
And where did the Kuwaitis get all this extra oil? As it turns out, they were stealing some of it from Iraq. Through a process known as ‘slant drilling,’ Kuwaiti oilers began digging their wells inside their home country. But instead of drilling straight down, they dug at an angle, eventually tapping into the rich Rumalia oil fields located just north of the Kuwait-Iraq border.
Determined to regain control of Rumalia, Hussein planned an invasion against his former ally. As a long-time friend of the United States, he didn’t foresee the Americans having any problems with the action. When asked on 25 July 1990 about recent military movements that looked like an imminent invasion against Kuwait, Hussein explained his intentions to US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie. He queried her opinion as to how the US would respond. Glaspie replied, through an interpreter, that the US “inspired by the friendship [to Hussein] and not by confrontation, does not have an opinion....we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts.” She even suggested a US media campaign to counter the effects of a recent scathing anti-Hussein report done by ABC’s Dianne Sawyer so that he could “explain Iraq to the American people.” A year earlier, President George H.W. Bush signed a National Security Directive which gave Iraq $500 million dollars in credits. Thus, it’s easy to speculate that Hussein went into the conflict against Kuwait without expecting any abreactions from the US, and subsequently the global community.
So, Iraq invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. Despite the massive military maneuvers noted by the US and other observers, the Iraqis seemed to take Kuwait by surprise, easily routing its ground and air forces. This compelled the ruling Amir, Jabar-Al-Ahmed Al -Jabar Al-Sabah, to flee the country to Saudi Arabia, while his brother, Fahad, died defending the palace. Hussein immediately established Alaa Hussein Ali as the governor of what amounted to an Iraqi province. Meanwhile, the exiled royal waited for any chance to regain control over their nation.
Although the Iraqis won a quick and decisive victory, they suffered greater consequences than they anticipated. The very abreaction from the global community they thought wouldn’t be a problem, became a problem. Along with the US, such other former allies as France and the USSR condemned the action. Some of Iraq’s old friends began to call for retaliatory action.
In later years, some would suspect that Glaspie and her superiors in Washington actually wanted to goad Iraq into war in order to destabilize the power of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, and its growing influence within the Middle East. While claiming socialist values--which would have made the West somewhat jumpy during the latter days of the Cold War all by itself--the Ba’athists were actually more committed to the idea of regional autonomy. As it stood then (and now), Iraq owned not just the Rumalia fields, but other rich sources of black gold. British Petroleum, however, controlled the production, and administered those fields. Iraq had already nationalized its oil reserves. Were he to take stronger measures, Hussein might have destabilized the oil industry. Worse yet, were the influence of the Ba’ath party to extend beyond Iraq, any Western influence over petroleum production could face serious difficulties. Then too, there was also the more immediate concern of preserving lower oil prices.
A 1996 article by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, of the zine Blazing Tattles, outlined the problems that the Bush White House had in selling war to the American public. Americans, at this time, were exceedingly reluctant to fight a war that smacked of Vietnam. Moreover this particular cause (Kuwaiti liberation) seemed particularly loathesome. The royal al-Sabah family strengthened its grip on control in 1986 by dissolving the National Assembly, heavily censoring the press (while intimidating reporters through violence and threats), and forcing down the wage-base by importing cheap foreign labor that bordered on slavery.
While it’s true that Hussein had ordered the execution of 150,000 people, many of them Kurdish, US complicity became apparent. As Richard Falk wrote in a paper for the Transnational Institute shortly after Hussein’s execution:
A fuller exposure of Saddam Hussein’s crimes would have awkwardly exposed American complicity. Iraq was a strategic ally of the United States in the 1980s, the decade in which the worst excesses of Baathist rule took place, including the persecution and execution of religious leaders. It was the United States that encouraged the attack upon Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran in 1980. It was the United States that supplied many of the components of the chemical weapons used against the Kurds, and then relied on its diplomatic influence to shield Baghdad from censure in the aftermath of these shocking events. And later it was the United States in 1991 that authorized the bloody crackdown of the Kurds in the North and the marsh Arabs in the South.
So while the US had plenty of mud to sling mud at Hussein, it would have difficulty doing it in such a way as to not soil itself in the process. And Kuwait seemed hardly worthy of liberation. As former Army PR officer Hal Steward described the problem in a 1990 paper for Public Relations Quarterly:
If and when a shooting war starts, reporters will begin to wonder why American soldiers are dying for oil-rich sheiks....The US military had better get cracking to come up with a public relations plan that will supply the answer the public can accept.
According to Stauber and Rampton, hawks within the US did just that. The Rendon Group received a $100,000 per month retainer for propagandizing the Kuwaiti cause. In one instance, they hired an Iraqi student, attending school in Boston, to impersonate Hussein in a series of recordings designed to compromise Ba’ath support in Iraq. Neill & Company hauled in $50K-a-month lobbying Congressional support for an invasion of Iraq. Through former US Ambassador Sam Zakhem, Bahrain channeled $7.7 million to The Coalition for Americans at Risk and The Freedom Task force. These two astroturf organizations used the money to produce and place TV and print advertisements. They also sponsored pro-war rallies.
PR juggernaut Hill-Knowlton received $10.8 million to stoke the war fires from a group calling itself The Citizens of a Free Kuwait, a front organization for the al-Sabah family. Some of that went to the Wirthlin Group, a research subsidiary of HK, to study polling trends. Some of it went to distributing “Free Kuwait” t-shirts and bumper stickers on college campuses across the US. Some of it went into the hasty publishing of a 154-page book, The Rape of Kuwait by Jean Sasson. The firm even organized events that took on the tone of pseudo-holidays (e.g., National Free Iraq Day, National Prayer Day, and National Student Information Day).
While all of these PR activities constituted propaganda, not to mention massive deception, the pièce de résistance, consisted of an out-and-out hoax, which, more than all of the PR efforts combined, drove the US into the Desert Storm.
Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: Engineering the News
Many of us believe that the news profession strives, above all else, to remain objective, and report the facts about an event or an issue.
I personally believe that most journalists (most journalists I’ve come across, at least) honestly strive for objectivity, accuracy, and clarity. As a former teacher of journalists, I know for a fact that my students took the strict code of ethics to heart, from their days working on the student newspaper, and on through to their internships at major news desks. They carried those ideals into the interview for that first important gig upon graduation.
That first gig sometimes turned out to be a rite of passage that no college could match. My students still strove for objectivity, accuracy and clarity. Problem was, the definition of those three concepts seemed to keep changing, as they tried to honor the goals set by one boss or another. If a story were true, for example, and you could prove it so, then why fret if an opposing side doesn’t have a chance to air its views–especially since the news is no longer beholden to the Fairness Doctrine? What if you offer a contrary view of an issue, but wind up distorting the truth?*
We all realize that the reality of a profession differs somewhat from how we see it portrayed in the college classroom, or in the movies. But sometimes standards become so fluid as to mutate into a lack of standards. And in some cases, we can show that instead of relating the full truth, some news outlets decided to deceive their viewers, in effect perpetrating a hoax upon them. The deception didn’t necessarily (although it very well could) occur in the content of what they said, but rather the context in which they said it.
Over the last ten years, there developed a new method of product public relations, known generally as ‘video news releases (VNRs),’ or ‘branded journalism.’ Such PR firms as MultiVu and D.S. Simon Productions can make professionally produced advertisements that mimic, to the letter, the look and feel of actual news segments. The client can then send them to various television news outlets, along with scripts that the local reporter, or anchorperson can read as a voiceover (just as they would with any other story that the station itself produced). This gives the impression that the story was produced locally.
For TV newscasters, the VNR represents free and easy content. For the client, the VNR serves as not just cheap, but authoritative advertisement. We all know that commercials exaggerate, if not outright lie. But a news segment appears factual and unbiased.
Many stations air this content without disclosing its source, or providing dissenting viewpoints. Thus, the viewer watches assuming that she is receiving an unbiased fact, when it is really a hard sell.
Figure 1. VNR for Trend Micro Software, by D.S. Simon Productions
Unlike the hoaxes of Joey Scruggs or Alan Abel, the VNR doesn’t intend to make people question their own points of view, or to engage in social critique. Instead, its job consists of selling a product or agenda as objective truth in an attempt to induce the public into a desired reaction–whether that’s buying anti-viral-software or supporting a policy initiative. But like culture jamming, it subverts mainstream media by aping its language and exploiting its tendencies toward emotionally charged sensationalism.
The federal government began to take advantage of VNRs as early as 2004, when the Bush administration produced a piece championing its changes to Medicare. Finding play on CNN and other news outlets, a woman, introducing herself as Karen Ryan, covered the “story” as though it had no political or partisan agenda. But Ryan was no reporter. In fact, she’s the founder of the Karen Ryan Group, a PR firm in which she often poses as a reporter for VNR segments ranging from public policy to video games.
In fact, the use of VNRs within the US federal government has become tolerated to the extent that various public agencies publish guides on how to do them.
Using PR firms to perpetrate hoaxes in order to engineer public consent for issues and agendas is nothing new. Four years ago, I posted about a bogus story involving Iran. In 2006, Benador Associates planted a story claiming that the Iranian legislature was considering a law forcing all non-Muslims to wear symbols on their clothing. For many, this smacked of the old Nazi policy requiring Jews to wear yellow Stars of David on their chest.
The purpose here, obviously, was to stir up public sentiment against Iran in the West. In this case, the mainstream press caught on quickly enough to nip any long-standing influence the report might have had in the bud.
In the same post, I mentioned another fake news story that the mainstream press did not stop in time. For some, the consequence of that hoax was death.
___________________ *For instance, should a journalist have to consult a Holocaust denier in order to discuss the Holocaust? To do such would make it seem as though this is an actual controversy, as if the truth is somewhere up in the air, or somewhere between the two points of view, when in fact there’s overwhelming evidence–beyond an academic standard of proof–that Nazi atrocities occurred.
An alum of New York’s High School of Art and Design, and The School of Visual Arts, Joey Skaggs concocted numerous pranks that one could consider performance art. For example, during the 1960s, when companies offered tours of Greenwich Village so that Mr. and Mrs. Middle America could stare out the windows and look at the hippies, Skaggs subsequently started his own tour. Renting a bus, he rounded up a bunch of New York hippies and took them on a tour of middle-class suburbia.
Skaggs pioneered this type of artistic social commentary, known as ‘culture jamming.’ Culture jamming, in its rawest form, attempts to subvert the dominant perspectives held by society by exposing the more ludicrous aspects of it. In the above example, the hippies weren’t treated as people by the companies running the Greenwich Village bus tour, but more like the animals one would find in a zoo. From the bus, the “normal” people could gawk at the “freaks” from a safe distance. This allowed tourgoers to affirm their stereotypical ideas of the counterculture without the bother of actually learning more about it. At best, the hippie bus tours demonstrated that those of the counterculture were actually as normal as everyone else. At worse, it depicted the suburbanites as the weird ones.
The hippie bus tour wasn’t exactly a hoax, but rather straightforward social satire. Skaggs didn’t try to deceive anyone, although some just didn’t get the joke.* Skagg’s later jams, however, included pranks that one could only describe as hoaxes. His method of hoaxing consisted of three stages. The first one (i.e., after planning) consisted of executing the actual stunt. Often he did this in a low key way. To begin arguably his most famous stunt, he simply placed an ad in The Village Voice soliciting customers for what amounted to a brothel for pets “featuring a savory selection of hot bitches.”
The second stage consists of monitoring the media coverage of the event by recording television and radio reports, clipping newspaper and magazine articles, et cetera. In the above hoax, known widely as the Cathouse for Dogs, Skaggs recorded calls from potential clients, who seriously wanted to book a session for their animal. He also taped calls from potential clients who wanted to film the dogs having sex, and others who wanted to hire a dog prostitute for themselves, not their pet. Skaggs then decided to stage a fake event for the camera crews of Midnight Blue.** The footage consisted of male dogs simulating copulation, actors playing the role of client/owners, and models dressed in slinky outfits matching the ones worn by the putative canine prostitutes.
Local news station WABC asked Skaggs if it could do a segment on the Cathouse for Dogs. Taking the hoax up a notch, he claimed that because of the publicity of the Midnight Blue showing, he had to go underground, and thus would not participate. He also arranged with Midnight Blue producers (who by then were in on the hoax) to release footage to WABC, which then aired the segment in all seriousness, and received an Emmy nomination for the piece. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s office, the local branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the NYPD vice squad, and a number of religious groups vowed to track down, investigate, and bring down the non-existent house of ill-repute. Eventually, the New York State Attorney General’s office issued a subpoena for Skaggs to appear for questioning.
The third stage of the hoax is the revelation, during which Skaggs records the reactions of those duped by his efforts. Here, Skaggs held a press conference outside the Attorney General’s office to announce that the whole Cathouse for Dogs thing was just a piece of conceptual art–i.e., a hoax. WABC, whose reputation and Emmy nomination were riding on the veracity of the story, refused to believe it, insisting instead that Skaggs merely claimed the story was false for legal reasons. According to Skaggs, WABC never retracted the story, leading some people to believe that not only did a pet brothel not only existed, but is still active. He cited veterinarian Dr. Louis Vine’s 2002 The Total Dog Book as briefly mentioning its existence.
Like the stunts pulled by Alan Abel, the Cathouse for Dogs hoax took in the media and public who felt, given the libertine days of the sexual revolution, that the story should be true. Comparing this piece with the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA), one can see how much public attitudes toward sex had changed from SINA’s heyday in the 1950s. There were now people willing to partake in such services, and even request special favors from Skagg’s fake company. At the same time, there were still the we’re-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket types who figured that this was the next stage of decadence.
Also, as in Abel’s stunts, Skagg’s ruse showed just how avidly the press gravitated towards salacious stories, without verifying their truthfulness. In many ways, this and other pranks exposed the press’ proclivities toward infotainment at the expense of information. And, like the urban legend, people continued to believe in the story despite no evidence that it took place and overwhelming evidence that it never happened.
In 1982 Skaggs created Gypsies Against Stereotypical Propaganda (GASP), a fictional organization which mounted a sham campaign to change the name of the species referred to as the ‘gypsy moth,’ because of its defamatory implications. Again, the press ate up the story without verification. After all, it reflected the growing concerns that people had in the 1980s of ever-creeping ‘political correctness,’ and the strong belief by many Americans that minority advocates only made wild, delusional charges against mainstream society over petty issues.
In 1986 Skaggs appeared on Good Morning, America, posing as Joe Bones, founder of the non-existent company Fat Squad. The hoax: for $300 a day, you could hire a rotating guard of musclemen who would follow you everywhere, literally every second of the day, to ensure that you wouldn’t go off your diet. Fat Squad’s appearance on a highly rated network news program bolstered its credibility as an actual company. At the same time, it exposed the press (specifically ABC) laxity in verifying the stories it put on the air. It also reflected not only public concern about weight, but in a general belief that Americans had become undisciplined, and could only accomplish their goals with relentless, aggressive quasi-parental supervision.
Posing as Dr. Richard Long, Skaggs mounted a fictional campaign to save the geoduck from extinction in 1987. Many expressed concern over the critters, thus exposing the type of knee-jerk hand-wringing and passive approach to activism that many had engaged in after the 1960s. As a Korean butcher named Kim Yung Soo, Skaggs created the Dog Meat Soup company, prompting outrage from those believing in the malicious stereotype that Asian restaurants served meat from stray dogs and cats.
Meanwhile, a new generation of culture jammers have continued this type of hoax as a form of political activism. The Yes Men, have wreaked havoc on many a PR campaign by posing as corporate executives. Either they state the company’s actual policy in plain–no double-talk–English, or they portray the company in a flattering light, thus forcing the corporation to state its actual position in unambiguous language. For example, in December of 2004, on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak that killed between 3800-15,000 people (depending on which government agency you consult), Yes Men posed as executives from Union Carbide, the company whose negligence caused the disaster. They created a mock website where they announced that the corporation had no intention of repairing the damages. Despite the company’s insistence it has done all it could for the town, many have noted its poor clean-up efforts more than twenty-five years later, and the lingering health effects that the tragedy created.
A little while later, posing as Dow (Union Carbide’s parent company) executive Jude Finisterra, Yes Men founder Andy Bichlbaum (left) appeared on BBC World to say that Dow would sell off Union Carbide for $12 billion, and use the proceeds to clean-up the site (finally) and take care of the sick and injured. This action forced the company to deny that they would take such action, in effect confirming the so-called fake position on the hoaxed site in plain, unambiguous language.
Curiously, others have adopted Skagg’s culture jamming techniques for other purposes. Because they rely on deception, and discard the satire, I would see them as true hoaxes as well. Problem is, we don’t tend to call these hoaxes. At best, we call them public relations, or sneaky advertising.
At worst, we call them news.
__________________ *The city of New York fined Skaggs for operating a bus tour without a licensed guide–on subsequent repeats of this prank, Skaggs actually hired a licensed guide. And real-life tour bus companies offered him a steady gig as a guide.
**Pursuant to the Broadcast act of 1984, cable companies developed public access channels, where anyone could show any original content they pleased. Manhattan Cable had a special public-access station (the infamous Channel 35) that leased time to the highest bidder. Many were pornographers, among them Screw magazine founder Al Goldstein who produced and hosted Midnight Blue. The show consisted of news, editorials, and interviews about sex and the adult entertainment business.
Legends, Hoaxes and the Big Lie: Ready, Willing and Abel
Many hoaxes are benign, designed only to amuse those who come across them, and clearly demarcated as falsehoods. In this category, we can put the occasional tall tale told by a visiting relative, or the annual April Fools Day prank. Here at The X-Spot, I’ve engaged in such hoaxes on the first of April to poke fun at myself, the site, and its content.
There are others who have effectively used hoaxing to create very interesting works of art. My latest April Fools Day prank was itself based on a hoax created by conceptual artists Joe Gore and Elise Malmberg (left). Clubbo Records, its history and paranormal activities all sprang from the minds of these two, who by intensely studying the theoretical constructs of musical expressions of different periods during the Rock Era managed to write, perform and record songs that sounded as though they came from the historical periods they claimed to be from. Ironically, Clubbo is no longer a fictional record label, but an active one that sells the product of this hoax via the Internet to consumers conscious of the ruse.
Some hoaxes, aren’t as innocent. Instead, they exist as part of a pointed agenda to expose some weakness in society and/or the powers that rule it.
Alan Abel (right), began as a musician and schoolteacher. But one day, as a young man, he decided to present himself to a bunch of Westinghouse executives as a golf pro. Once they accepted him as such, Abel then proceeded to tell them how to improve their game by performing ballet moves while they swung. Of course, this didn’t help the golfers’ games one whit. It did, however, make them look mighty silly.
On the one hand, you could see this as the puerile prank of an immature twenty-something. On the other hand, you can also see this as a weird type of social critique. Most people understood (especially during the 1950s, when Abel performed this stunt) the connection between wealth, privilege and the game of golf. We can imagine the number of deals affecting myriad lives taking place on the putting green of an exclusive country club where the vast majority of us (either because we lack the ethnic background, fame, or money) couldn’t join if we wanted to. There’s also a presumption of superiority among the individuals who have the breeding and fee money for acceptance (hence, we call them elites). In effect, by taking them down a peg, Abel questioned, and then challenged the presumed superiority that served as the rationale for their status and authority.
In 1959, while driving with his wife, Jeanne, Abel had to stop his car when a cow and bull in heat blocked the road ahead. Abel took note of the outcry from surrounding motorists. While you might expect the negative reaction came about simply because of the delay, most of the vitriol focused on the impropriety of public sex, despite the fact that the participants were quadrupeds who knew nothing of social mores. Inspired by their reaction, Abel enlisted the help of his close friend, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Buck Henry, and created a fictional organization, The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). Poking fun at sexually repressed bourgeois propriety, Abel and Henry drafted a press release, which got picked up by the national media. Claiming, “A nude horse is a rude horse,” they called upon legislators to draft laws prohibiting the nakedness of both wild and domesticated critters.
Newspapers, television, and radio programs never questioned whether or not the group actually existed. Like an urban legend, they bought this hoax not because it sounded true, but rather, given the straight-laced button-down culture of the 1950s, characterized by such television shows as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, it sounded as though it should have been true.
Media weren’t the only ones taken in by Abel’s ruse. In response to the publicity blitz, a number of viewers donated money to SINA (Abel always returned the contributions), and sent him sewing patterns designed for specific animals. More than anything else, their actions proved that a sizeable number of people had really eccentric (if not pathological) views of sexuality. Moreover, he showed how the press tended to gravitate toward the sensational, with no or little concern for accuracy. Had the reporters actually done their job, they would have discovered that SINA was a sham.
Abel went on to perform a number of other stunts, utilizing his friends and family. In 1964, Jeanne (left) posed as an elderly woman named Yetta Bronstein, who aspired to the US presidency. Her platform included putting truth serum into the Senate water fountain, and rescinding Congressional salaries in favor of a straight commission. Despite the obviousness of the hoax, newspaper, radio and television reporters flooded the Abels’ phone with interview requests.
In 1975, Abel announced the opening of Omar’s School for Beggars, a vocational institution dedicated to the training of professional panhandlers. Tom Snyder, the host of NBC’s Tomorrow Coast to Coast, immediately put him on the air to discuss the topic, and it snowballed. Over the next fourteen years, Abel managed to maintain the hoax–with one media outlet after another taking it seriously–despite the fact that multiple sources exposed the school’s fraudulent nature during that time.
In 1979, Abel persuaded a friend, who looked a lot like Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada, to pose as the dictator in a stunt in which he “married” a white protestant woman in a public place, in full view of passersby and the press. In 1980, he faked his own death. In 1983, he snuck a phony referee onto the field of Super Bowl XVII. The imposter called four plays before other officials discovered him, and booted him out of the stadium. In 1994, shortly after the Lorena Bobbitt scandal, he appeared on the Jenny Jones Show claiming to be a husband whose wife glued his penis to his rear end. In 2006, he dusted off one of his older pranks, that of the non-existent lottery winner, and again, the press swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.
Recounting all of Abel’s hoaxes is not possible here in the limited space I have available. Go to his website (NSFW link) if you want to see more hijinks. Still, if you look through this limited sample, you can see certain themes emerging, chief among them the fact that no one pays close attention to anything. On a deeper level, his pranks highlight fears of a changing social order in the case of the Idi Amin and Lorena Bobbitt hoaxes. The Omar mocked the comforting fiction that begging for food and money isn’t done out of necessity, but because of a lifestyle choice opted for by ne’er-do-wells who don’t want to work. The Yetta-for-Prez stunt hinted that our government had fallen under the influence of money, a premise that many (including myself) believe, at least to some degree.
One of the chief themes in Abel’s work centers on the immaturity of Americans in dealing with sexuality in a meaningful and responsible way. He filmed a number of the sex hoaxes he perpetrated during the 1960s, and presented them in the 1971 documentary Is There Sex After Death? (NSFW). Among other things, he interviewed a number of people, some from off the street, and some semi-famous celebs of the time (e.g., Holly Woodlawn). At the same time he enlisted the help of Jeanne, Henry, Robert Downey Sr., Mink Stole, and others to assist in various pranks. In one, for example, Henry and Abel, posing as physicians specializing in sex, give an outrageously male chauvinist Q&A session to a group of college women. In another segment, Abel interviewed an attorney as to the legality of sex in 1970, getting the lawyer to state–in all seriousness–that the only way a sex crime could be within the FBI’s jurisdiction would be if the sexual act took place across state lines, with one partner, say, in Arizona, and the other in New Mexico. Other highlights include a performance by a topless string quartet, and the staging of a sexual competition, both attended by crowds thinking that they were witnessing something real and uncontrived.
Many people find the film uncomfortable to watch, especially when its at is funniest. But when at his best, Abel forces the onlooker to confront issues that the bulk of society doesn’t want to discuss openly: sex, prejudice, power inequities and so forth. He then compels people to think about their own positions, while at the same time challenging long-held assumptions.
For the most part, Abel has retired from the hoax business, although one can never be quite sure whenever he’s concerned. By now, he’s so well known among the press that whenever someone perpetrates a hoax, reporters immediately call him to ask if he was behind it. Slowed by age and fixed income, Abel’s probably done his last great scam. The next hoaxer in this series, a product of the 1960s counterculture, is still active in the cyberage of the Twenty-First Century.
As you’ve probably surmised by now, my friend found herself in the middle of what we would nowadays call an ‘urban legend.’ All of us have heard many of these apocryphal stories at one time in our life. Most likely, we’ve all relayed them to others thinking that they were, or might be true. They frequently come from an otherwise reliable source. In this instance, the story came from a knowledgeable professor, an academic whose research is otherwise impeccable, and a respectable journalist. Likewise, they also creep into newspapers, especially in such advice columns as “Dear Abby,” which was particularly known for taking this type of misinformation seriously when a reader reported something strange happening to a friend of a friend (or FOAF, as they’re known in cyberspace). ULs also occur on nightly news broadcasts, especially at the end when the anchorperson seriously intones some “human interest story.”
Jan Brunvand, a folklorist who has made a cottage industry out of examining urban legends in such books as Curses! Broiled Again and The Choking Doberman, examined the many sources of these narratives. The bulk of them arise out of the unarticulated, generalized fears that a society has about change, or people whom it considers outsiders. In one story, for example, a woman had a beehive hairdo that hid a spiders nest, which (depending on the version) either caused her social embarrassment when the arachnids crawled out at a dinner party, or ate out her brain. This urban legend served as a cautionary tale about the price of trendiness (well, okay, back then the beehive was trendy) and vanity.
A more recent story told of a street gang that drove deserted roads with their headlights out, and would chase and kill any motorist who flashed their own headlights in warning. Here, the street gang is an alien element of society, an other that most “respectable” people would never encounter.
Sometimes urban legends project an innate fear of transgressing societal expectations. One of the most famous legends of this type had a man picking up a woman at a bar, taking her home, and then bedding her. When he awoke the next morning, she had gone. But in the bathroom mirror, steamed by a recent shower, she had written, “Welcome to the wonderful world of AIDS.” This legend found currency in the AIDS scare of the 1980s, and warns the listener of the dangers of casual sex.
Some urban legends begin as jokes that someone along the way takes seriously. Like much politically incorrect humor, many of these reflect the biases and prejudices of the teller. A famous one, at various times connected to baseball player Reggie Jackson, actor Eddie Murphy, and musician Lionel Richie, involves a small white woman who steps onto an elevator, in front of a large African American man and his dog. When the door closes, the man simply says, “Sit, Whitey!” So, out of sheer terror, the woman sits, never realizing that Whitey is the dog’s name.*
There are also a number of stories that betray a vague mistrust of authority and such institutions of power as government or corporations. In one, a man working for General Motors retires after forty years of stellar service. The company rewards him by taking him to a lot of recently manufactured automobiles and letting him pick one for hinmself. He makes his selection, fills it up at the gas station, and drives home. Two weeks later, he notices that the gas tank is still on full, despite the fact that he filled it up only once. Two more weeks go by, with the gas meter just a little under full, he mentions it to old friends of his from the plant. In the middle of that night, he wakes up to the sound of two unknown men tinkering with his car. He chases them off, but afterwards notices that the car’s gas consumption is now a normal twenty miles per gallon. As it turns out, the car he picked was an experimental prototype of a machine that could go months without refueling. When GM executives heard about it, they sent out a couple of engineers to modify the car so that it would operate normally. They covered it up because they were afraid that the oil industry would tank (ahem!) if such a car were ever found out.
The above story depicts all of big business (auto manufacturers, oil companies) working in cahoots to deprive the public of technologies that would greatly improve their lives in order to maintain an atmosphere of universal profit. While collusion has been documented in corporate affairs, this particular story is almost certainly untrue. Like many other urban legends, the only parties mentioned by name are those of well-known organizations, just as in other legends, one of the parties is a celebrity. The attachment of a name to the story lends it some degree of credibility. Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Lionel Richie and GM have all publically denied their involvement in these legends, which, of course, leads some people to believe in them even more, claiming that the involved parties are simply covering up something.
On occasion, the stories become true because someone consciously acts them out in real life. For example, when driving home from school one day in 1985, I heard, over the radio news broadcast, the story of a man in Florida who saw an ad for a late-model Porsche, with few miles. He went to the woman selling it, test drove it, and decided to buy it. When he asked her what price she wanted, she said, “Fifty dollars.” Wary, he asked her why she was selling the car for so little money. She explained that her husband had run off with his secretary, and sent her a telegram ordering her to sell the car, and send him the money from the proceeds.
In 2005, British shock jock Tim Shaw fawned over model Jodie Marsh, a woman who once admitted that she had been out of control over her sexuality for the past decade. When Shaw claimed he would leave his wife and kids for her, his wife promptly but his £25,000 Porsche up for sale on E-Bay for fifty pence. Because of his notoriety as a shock jock, many believe that Marsh and his wife simply collaborated on a prank based on a well known urban legend. Well, either that, or his fawning over Marsh really ticked her off.
Simply put, urban legends reflect the anxieties, bigotries, values and fantasies of a sizeable group within a larger population. Those who buy into them don’t believe them because they sound true. In fact they sound anything but. They buy into them because their prior beliefs tell them that they should be true.
The problem is that urban legends are rarely true in part, and even more rarely true in their entirety. Their inaccuracies stem from the emotive reasoning that drives them. As a source of misinformation, they can be somewhat pernicious because of the psychological hold they have over believers, despite overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary. Confusing the issue further, there are sometimes meta-truths in urban legends. Corporations have kept technologies away from the market for a number of reasons (e.g., magnetic tape, television) or driven superior technologies out of existence (e.g., the triumph of VHS over Betamax). People often have comic misunderstandings, especially across cultural lines.
Moreover, people who tell urban legends aren’t actually lying (although in the case of FOAFs they might be exaggerating, or coloring the narrative just a bit), but rather telling stories that they heard from other people, and genuinely believe to be true. Just because it didn’t happen to the friend of a friend (of a friend of a friend) didn’t mean it didn’t happen to someone, right?
There are other inaccurate stories, however, that in many ways parallel the urban legend in both their content and affect. Like the urban legend, they project the beliefs and wishes of a large swath of society, are sensational, and untrue. The difference is that one person, or a group of individuals, compose the narrative, and deliberately disseminate it knowing it to be false.
We don’t call these urban legends. We call them hoaxes.
*The Bob Newhart Showincorporated this legend into one episode. If you watch TV, you’ll often find urban legends played out on the small screen.
Two weeks before I actually moved to Manhattan, I had to meet with the housing administrator so I could pick out an apartment. As she showed me around, one of the residents, a tall, obscenely pretty brunette in cut-off shorts and tee shirt, came by to wash her dishes in the communal kitchen. I made a comment to the housing administrator how nice the kitchen looked. The brunette, intercepting the comment, griped about how the other residents never cleaned up after themselves, or at least very well, and she had to do it all herself.
I had to admit the woman was eye candy. But with a temper like that, I made a mental note to avoid her. As I saw her more and more, I got this, I don’t know, bad vibe whenever she walked into the room. It was as if a sudden chill had frosted the air. With her olive complexion, long raven locks, and permanent scowl, I sometimes toyed with the notion that she was part Romulan.
Of course, we couldn’t avoid each other. We were living in the same building, studying in the same department, sharing the same office space at the university, and had joint research projects assigned to us. But it wasn’t so bad. It took her some time to soften up, and it took me a little more time to trust her not to bite me in a foaming rage. Long story short, we became friends. In fact, she became one of the closest friends of my life.
She had a few years on me, and she used that time to achieve a few noteworthy things. In fact, at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, while researching something else, I happened to come across a magazine article about her. Right there, in the first paragraph, was the story of Philip Glass’ run-in with a young music student, who, after looking at his hack license, informed him that there was a famous composer by that name.
Here’s the kicker: the article identified my friend as the woman who stepped into that cab.
If I ever had a doubt about the story's veracity, I didn’t anymore. After all, I could see my friend making the comment. I had learned earlier (from someone else) that she and Glass knew each other. I figured that must have been how they met.
Excited, I photocopied the article, took it to my building, made a b-line for my friend’s apartment, and shoved it in her face as soon as she opened the door. “I heard about this in my undergraduate twentieth century music class,” I blurted. “I had no idea that woman was you. Why didn’t you say anything?”
She let out a loud sigh. When I lowered the photocopy I saw her eyes narrowing into that familiar Romulan scowl. “Oh, that again,” she spat.
Okay, I can see where the story makes her look somewhat, um, daffy. And she’s so serious I can see where discussion of it would make her uncomfortable. But as it turns out, she objected to it for another reason.
“It’s not true,” she said. “It never happened.”
She then explained that she actually met Glass at a party. As a twentieth century music expert, she knew his work quite well, and held it in high esteem (in fact, I can just picture her gushing over him at this point). Glass, keeping things real, told her that it didn’t make him money. In fact he had to drive a cab to make ends meet.
She then quipped, “Good thing I didn’t step into your cab. I might’ve said something stupid, like, ‘You know, there’s a famous composer with your name.’”
And that’s how it started: as an off-hand joke told at a party.
At least according to my friend.
See, that’s the thing. I trust my friend. I trust my professors. And the magazine article said she was this woman. Both she and my professor are honest. Neither would knowingly lie to me. Of course, I believe my friend, because the story is about her. She would be in a better position to know.
This brings up all the issues involved with conflicting sources. Had I never met this woman, I would have probably gone to my grave thinking the story true. But just how does one make heads or tails of a story when all the sources disagree on the who, what, when, why and where?
Welcome, my friends, to the wonderful lands of misinformation and disinformation, a world very familiar to many conspiracy researchers.
This series is dedicated to our friend Ray, who suggested it at the close of the previous one.
During my junior year of undergraduate school, in my twentieth century music course, the professor began his section on Philip Glass. At the time, Glass was pretty hot, having scored the 1982 Godfrey Reggio flick,Koyaanisqatsi.
Figure 1. Koyaanisqatsi Trailer
The prof talked briefly about Glass’ life up to that point. According to the lecture, the composer’s previous works didn’t earn him a lot of money, despite his critical success. So to survive, he had to drive a taxi in Manhattan. Wouldn’t you know, some bright-eyed young music student entered his cab, took a look at his hack license, and blurted, “You know, there’s a famous composer with your name.”
Glass simply sighed in dignified anguish, and paid the young woman no mind.
That is, according to the story. Years later, I would learn quite a bit about this tale.
How? Same as I often do. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth.