Thursday, October 25, 2007

The deceptive allure of darn good buzz

On a busy day, I'll confine myself to offering this public service:

In recent weeks, a great number of emailers have excitedly sought to inform me about a particulary juicy entry in The Reagan Diaries, a recently published volume of the late president's private jottings. They have quoted the entry, and urged me to post it forthwith; after I declined to do so, I was duly informed, by some of the emailers, that I was clearly a right-wing stooge/Republican apologist/censor/killjoy.

Here's the passage. Supposedly, the juice factor is high because the writer is Reagan, the "George" is Vice President Bush, and the "son"...well, you know who that is:

"May 17, 1986. A moment I've been dreading. George brought his ne're-do-well son around this morning and asked me to find the kid a job. Not the political one who lives in Florida. The one who hangs around here all the time looking shiftless. This so-called kid is already almost 40 and has never had a real job. Maybe I'll call Kinsley over at The New Republic and see if they'll hire him as a contributing editor or something. That looks like easy work."

For those of you who might find this passage in your email box, and might be tempted to forward it to new recipients, be forewarned: It's fake.

This verdict is apparently a revelation to many of my emailers, who seem to assume, in our new communications era, that anything rocketing through cyberspace automatically has the ring of truth - or, more specifically, that anything that squares with their partisan views should be treated as true. Certainly, back in the mid-'80s, George W. Bush was a notoriously underemployed adult, so perhaps that was sufficient for those who greeted the purported entry with guffaws of delight.

My first reaction, when I read it, was puzzlement. How had this not been highlighted last May, in the initial news stories about the diaries? How was it possible that Bill Maher had not mined it for an entire opening monologue on HBO? How was it possible that a president would have penned such brazenly disdainful prose, when, in fact, every president assumes that his diaries will be publicized, and therefore that they need to be written with malice toward none and charity toward all?

So I went to a bookstore, pulled The Reagan Diaries off the shelf, leafed to the date...and there was nothing about a shiftless ne'er-do-well son. Then I went online, and within seconds, the truth emerged:

Columnist Michael Kinsley learned last spring that he would surface on page 400, where Reagan briefly mentions enjoying an off-the-record lunch with Kinsley and several other journalists. Amused by this news, Kinsley then proceeded, in the July '07 pages of The New Republic, to write a satire, in which he made up several Reagan entries, with himself playing a cameo role in each. The Bush passage was one of three Kinsley inventions.

Somewhere along the line, somebody with no sense of irony highlighted the Bush passage and, minus the Kinsley authorship, passed it along as truth...and out it spun, morphing into darn good buzz.

And what's doubly ironic is that, according to Kinsley, the actual Reagan entry - where he attends an off-the-record lunch with the president - was wrong too. Kinsley says the actual New Republic attendee was Charles Krauthammer; somebody (Reagan, the editor, the publisher) stuck in Kinsley's name by mistake.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make, about slippery factoids on the Internet. There's an old saying in journalism, and it needs to be honored anew: "If your own mother says she loves you, check it out."