There's no lying down on job with rumors running wild

July 29, 1994|By Sascha Segan | Sascha Segan,Sun Staff Writer

They're the truth police.

The staff at Baltimore Rumor Control, the nation's only continually operational municipal rumor control center, are out to clean up the lies on Baltimore's streets.

"We disseminate factual information," says Thomas Saunders, a terse, businesslike man who runs Rumor Control as part of the city's Community Relations Commission.

Baltimoreans who want the truth call Mr. Saunders with rumors, asking him if what they've heard is on the level. And he's heard some pretty weird stuff.

There's the "Perils of Pauline" rumor, for instance: whispers that a gang was running through Pigtown kidnapping little girls, tying them to railroad tracks and killing them.

When a few Pigtown residents called Mr. Saunders, he did his job. Mr. Saunders called the local police station, where officers checked out the situation and determined the rumor was false, spread by schoolkids.

He's also heard about HIV-positive Coca-Cola workers infecting soda cans (wrong), a crusade to keep all televangelists off the air (didn't happen) and cyanide in Breyer's yogurt (happened in one carton of yogurt in New Jersey several years ago).

Then there's the "lights off" gang initiation. In the past year, faxes have been sent to cities across the country claiming that potential gang members are driving the highways with their headlights off. If a hapless motorist flashes his or her lights to "wake up" the gang member's car, the story goes, the gang member follows the other car home and kills all of the occupants. Rumor Control has gotten more than 200 calls from Baltimoreans who were afraid that the mysterious gang would put their lights out. Totally untrue.

Or how about the one involving the can tabs. For the past 10 years, Rumor Control has been getting calls from people who think that by sending tabs from soda and beer cans to the Maryland Kidney Foundation, they can buy their loved ones time on kidney dialysis machines.

"People have collected thousands of them," says an exasperated Jennifer Morales of the foundation. "There's no such thing as buying time on a dialysis machine, but it's awful to tell people it's not true. Some people get really angry, and others are just dumbfounded."

Pass it on

Some rumors center on real events, whether local or national. When something is in the news, word-of-mouth often ends up providing people with scrambled information, like a game of "Telephone."

Lately, Mr. Saunders has been fielding dozens of calls about the Jesse Chapman case. Witnesses claim Mr. Chapman was beaten to death while struggling with police on July 2, though an ongoing investigation has not found evidence of any wrongdoing by police. One man, Baltimore resident James Breakfield, claims to have a videotape of Mr. Chapman, 30, being beaten by police officers, but refuses to show it to authorities or to the media.

"That sparked a lot of calls," Mr. Saunders says.

Mr. Saunders and his two assistants answer 15 to 20 calls a day. On a really busy day, they'll get 35. He hears from people who think their next-door neighbor is a tramp, people with questions about Mayor Kurt Schmoke's private life and people complaining about a lack of hot water in their apartment.

One day last week, Rumor Control fielded four crank calls, three "gossip" calls, two complaints about city services, four questions about the Chapman case and made four referrals to other city agencies.

"Most of the calls are just from average Baltimore citizens," says Mr. Saunders. "Often people call with personal rumors, the sex lives of politicians and stuff. We don't deal with things of a personal nature."

The search for truth

Once Rumor Control gets a call, whether it's about O. J. Simpson or contamination in the water supply, staffers make a few calls to media and police sources to solve the mystery at hand.

Even though Rumor Control can disprove and stop some of the rumors, it can rarely catch the culprits.

Take the gang-initiation rumor. The unsigned fax that brought ito Baltimore falsely credits the Illinois State Police Department with the information. The Illinois police have been searching for the perpetrator, to no avail.

"It's just a hoax of unbelievable proportions," says Sgt. Eric Westphal of the Illinois State Police Department. The mysterious faxes have spread up and down the East Coast and through America's heartland.

The beer-can dialysis rumor is similarly mysterious. In fact, it's been going on for so long that nobody at the Kidney Foundation can even remember when it started.

There are four main causes of rumors, Mr. Saunders says: wishful thinking, uncertainty, incomplete information and plain malice.

Mr. Breakfield's case demonstrates a fifth: old-fashioned stubbornness. Many people think that the rumors about his videotape could be quelled if he just showed it to someone. He tells them to get out of his life.

"What I may have in my personal life is not the issue here. . . . I have a tape player, it belongs to me," Mr. Breakfield says.

But the rumors continue.

The history of Rumor Control stretches back to 1968, when Baltimore established the service followint the riot after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Other cities set up similar information centers. Today, most cities' truth police are called into service only in times of mass confusion or grave danger. When other cities do set out to stop rumors, it's Baltimore they look to for help. "We are the model for the rest of the nation," Mr. Saunders says.

That's gained Rumor Control some fame. It's been called by rumor specialists at the Sorbonne and radio shows from London, all seeking Mr. Saunders' 13 years of expertise at tracking and throttling rumors. But in the face of celebrity, crank calls, Jesse Chapman and spurious gang initiations, Mr. Saunders keeps his cool. After all, he has a job to do.

"You never know where the rumors are going to come from," he says.

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