Baltimore once had a Rumor Control Center that responded to all kinds of questions: Were snakes being released in movie theaters? Did Johns Hopkins University really pay cash for rare blue-eyed cicadas? Was someone planning to build an underwater shopping mall in the Inner Harbor? Were downtown sinkholes caused by bombs?
Established amid the rioting of 1968, Rumor Control did a generally good job of quelling the civilis anxietatem and separating fact from fiction for confused, concerned and paranoid Baltimoreans.
But the city phased out the hotline a few years ago, and that’s too bad. Many citizens, starting with Mayor Jack Young, could use the service today.
Had Rumor Control still been operating last week, for instance, we might have been spared the cringe-inducing sound of Young telling a TV interviewer about “somebody in a white van trying to snatch up young girls for human trafficking and for selling body parts.” A couple of weeks earlier, Young shared the same worry at a news conference, saying he was concerned about “people pulling up in vans, snatching young girls to take their organs or sell them into prostitution.”
Baltimore police were aware of the rumors, posted on Facebook, but they had no credible reports of such a thing. As of Tuesday, they still had nothing on the white van front.
And yet, we had the mayor of Baltimore, already beset with crime problems that have resulted in more than 300 homicides for each of the last five years, making city life sound even worse by repeating a particularly sensational rumor about a super-evil crime.
In my business, we have a rule about rumors: You check them out. You do not publish them as news unless you have a verified first-hand account, confirmation from an official or documented proof.
In repeating the white van story, Jack Young showed himself to be no better than many other souls whose heads have been filled with ridiculous rumors, crackpot conspiracy theories and political invective. There’s a steady diet of that lousy gruel on radio, on television and especially online. It has infected much of the nation, leaving millions impaired, incapable of discerning fact from fiction.
Truth — the concept of core facts generally accepted — has really taken a beating in the age of social media and, particularly, since the election of Donald Trump.
You state facts, and you’re accused of stating an opinion. You state facts, and someone from the other tribe accuses you of bias. We have lived with this condition for years, but it’s getting worse.
In fact, Trump frequently states what is clearly the opposite of truth — most relevant, the claim that his July shakedown phone call with the new Ukraine president was “perfect.” In fact, it was part of a series of actions that will lead to his impeachment.
But look where impeachment will take us — from the House of Representatives, where truth mattered (at least to Democrats), to the Senate, where truth appears to mean nothing at all (to the Republican majority). Not a single congressional Republican has publicly acknowledged that Trump abused his powers by demanding that Ukraine dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son. Instead, they claim Trump is a victim of a partisan conspiracy —there’s that word again — to run him out of office. They proliferate Trump’s smears of the Bidens, and they keep repeating the bogus claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Hillary Clinton.
In this atmosphere, I find it almost quaint that the director of the FBI would go out of his way to say that claim about Ukraine was false and then offer his fellow Americans some advice.
"Well, look,” Chris Wray said in an ABC interview the other day, “there's all kinds of people saying all kinds of things out there. I think it's important for the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information, to think about the sources of it and to think about the support for what they hear.”
In other words, stop watching FOX News, or at least try watching another cable channel or even — I know this is asking a lot — read a newspaper.
Ironically, Wray’s comments came the same day the Inspector General of the Justice Department released his report on the FBI’s investigation of Russian links to the 2016 Trump campaign. The report found flaws in the investigation but not the anti-Trump political conspiracy — that word again — the president and his allies had claimed.
What’s the irony? That Republicans would be deeply concerned with the nuances and supposed impropriety of an FBI investigation while dismissing documented allegations that the president tried to force Ukraine into helping him get re-elected. Truth is imperative in the former, unimportant in the latter.
It gives you a headache.
We have sailed past super-partisanship into an even wider divide, exploited daily by the president, that poses a real threat to American democracy. Fixing it starts with truth, and truth with agreeing on facts, and facts with our ability, in towns and cities from sea to shining sea, to discern reality from fiction.
Does the nation need a Rumor Control Center like the one Baltimore once had? Maybe.