Archive for Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Publishers notebook: Tracking down truth behind the rumors

September 18, 2002

About three weeks ago, during dinner, my 14-year-old daughter related an alarming story.

She said her biology teacher had told her class that one of the biology teacher's good friends had been in line at a convenience store in a nearby town whose name started with an "O."

The man in front of the friend a man who appeared to be from the Middle East didn't have enough money to pay for the items he wanted. The friend stepped up and gave the man the $3 that he was short. He thanked her.

As the friend was leaving the store, she noticed the man was lingering out front. As she walked past him, he stopped her, asking why she would help a stranger like that. The friend said she thought it was just the thing to do.

And the man told her, "Since you were so nice to me, let me be nice to you. Don't drink Pepsi after September 15."

My husband, daughter and I discussed this remarkable and disturbing story. My daughter couldn't remember the name of the town. Was it Olathe? What about Ottawa? Or Osawatomie? Maybe Oskaloosa. Hmm, it could have been one of those.

My mind was racing. Could this chilling story possibly be true?

I asked my daughter if she could get more information from her teacher.

I told her I didn't think this happened, that this was an urban legend like the story about the woman who tried to dry her rain-drenched cat in the microwave and the poor animal blew up.

My daughter had another take on the story: Perhaps it was a story circulated by Coca-Cola. My husband smiled. That appealed to his quirky sense of humor.

It sounded plausible, I admitted, but unlikely.

After that night, I forgot about that story until last week, when I heard a variation of it involving Coke during lunch in Tonganoxie.

So I decided it was time to do some checking. I must admit I was motivated both because I drink Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi and because part of my job is to check out rumors.

As one of my now-deceased journalism professors used to tell me: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.

Harsh as that might sound, it's excellent advice for a young journalist. Actually, it's excellent advice for all journalists.

On Monday, I logged onto to a Web site I've visited before: www.urbanlegends.com. It's a fascinating place that explores allegations in cyberspace.

As I suspected, there was the entry I was searching for, "Terrorist warns don't drink Coke and Pepsi."

The site said the stories about the terrorist and his warning are not true.

"If all the stories were true, the law enforcement officials would not have any trouble rounding up a gang of such blabbermouth terrorists. And given the heightened vigilance that all Americans have been exhorted to since September 11th, it's unlikely that any terrorist would risk himself in divulging plans of attacks."

In addition, Coca-Cola has issued a statement saying the rumors are false.

"We always take reports of this nature seriously. You should know that investigations to date, conducted by Federal and local officials, as well as The Coca-Cola Company, have concluded that these rumors have no merit," the site quoted Coke officials as saying.

This urban legend is interesting because it's circulated by word-of-mouth.

It seems that in the past few years, these stories generally are distributed via e-mail.

I received one last week that said Pepsi had removed the phrase "under god" from the small portion of the Pledge of Allegiance that the company planned to print on upcoming promotional cans.

The person who sent my e-mail said that if Pepsi wants to remove "under god," the company should not receive any American dollars with "under god" printed on them. The e-mail encouraged me to boycott Pepsi.

Well, I thought I could switch to Diet Coke. But why in the world would Pepsi do that?

According to the Urban Legends Web site, they didn't.

These two cola stories are different from most I and other members of The Mirror staff check out. During the 23 years I've been a professional journalist, I've determined that usually there is a basis in fact for most rumors that are floating around.

But not this time.

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